When the not-entirely-wicked Antoinette de Mauban thrust a hand out, Grenfell-like, to hero Rudolph Rassendyll to wish him a hearty "Good luck!", a small boy behind me queried the audience laughter with "What's so funny about that?" The hymning of English pluck, tenacity and honour is played too straight-faced for kids but with quiet amusement for adults in Matthew Francis's enjoyable, pacy adaptation of Hope's much-filmed adventure story. When Rassendyll travels to Ruritania to find himself the double of the drunkard king-to-be and obligingly stands in at the coronation, the evil duo of Black Michael (Nicholas Gecks, in austere uniform) and pouting, pelvic, polymorphous Rupert of Hentzau (Mark Lockyer in Byronic open shirt and leather knee-boots) seize their chance and the comatose prince.
Lez Brotherston's set is a marvel of central European Gothic versatility: trapdoors, arches, ramps and curving stairs on which the inevitable climactic duel is fenced (every reviewer tries to ring a new change on the term "swashbuckling", but on this occasion the fights truly merit the word). Mia Soteriou's music delineates mood excellently without veering towards a film score, and most importantly Francis keeps the essential tight rein on any inclinations toward parody. The quick-change scenes where David Haig switches from Rassendyll to prince with the twitch of a moustache and a cloak are adept but cheekily brazen, but Haig as Rassendyll is affectingly candid about the temptations which face him, and the focal love-v.-duty scenes carry a surprising emotional heft. Great fun for all the family – if you can explain low-camp to the youngsters.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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