“Countess Jeanne and the Necklace Scam” does a brilliant job at bringing a lesser-known real scam plot from the XVIII c. and infusing it with today’s jokes, puns, and pop culture references – with various outcomes (sometimes better, sometimes not so much). It’s a treat for fans of farce, stories of complex intrigues, and a marvellous, frivolous piece of fringe theatre, ideal for a boozy, after-work evening.
The play’s story is almost exactly a type of a real-life email scam – you know, the typical “you have received a million dollars, you just need to claim it” kind of story – but this one is placed in the XVIII century France. Watching scam hunters on Youtube is one of my guilty pleasures, so I had high expectations for this show as well. In the case of “Countess Jeanne…”, however, the introduction seems overly lengthy and until we get to the actual scam, the first act is already gone.
The play tells the story of Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, self-proclaimed “Comtesse de la Motte”, who was a notorious French adventuress and thief. She dreamed of becoming a part of the high society and tried to become friends with the Queen. Unsuccessful, she turned to an idea of a scam to get to where she wanted to get. Her complex scheme included writing fake love letters to Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, posing as the Queen, with the aim for him to purchase a diamond necklace. The scam seemed to work… until it didn’t. (no more information, as I wouldn’t want to spoil the story).
The story of Jeanne has been presented in theatre and other arts before but was usually presented as a dramatic, tragic story. With this play, writer and director Bern Hogan turned the concept on its head and made it a farce/comedy. I think it’s a very logical idea – nowadays, we are used to action films and crime stories presented as comedies (“Zootopia” or “Knives Out” come to mind), so why not this one?
The production excels when it becomes self-aware for a couple of seconds, breaks the fourth wall, or just opens the window to a not-so-scripted side of characters. Wish there was more of it in the play!
We follow a cast of 4, as they create multiple characters and impress with many quick-change acts (sometimes done in just a couple of seconds, I have to say, I was impressed!). The costumes are the highlight of the play – colorful, and varied from royal dresses, through cardinal’s outfit, and a huge, over-the-top firey-red wig. I have to applaud the costume mistress Sophia Danes-Gharbaoui for her excellent work.
Let’s talk about acting performances. Elise Williams as Marie Antoinette (and others) tends to act in a loud, exaggerated way, which makes all of her personas quite similar to each other. I did enjoy her little quirk of bringing up quotes by famous queens mid-sentence – these were some of the funniest moments of the show.
Isabel Lamers as Jeanne slowly unveils a clear motive that drives her actions forward, however, she is not the kind of character that you’d like to cheer for. I did enjoy how layered and non-perfect Jeanne was – definitely not your typical nice, kind-hearted heroine! She almost singlehandedly delivers the monologue that drives the story forward and handles the pace and energy of the 2-hour production, while keeping the energy high. Lamers’ performance, however, is pretty uneven, with some lengthy scenes mixed with puns and simple, almost slapstick kind of humor.
Joshua Jewkes (Rétaux and others) gives this role his very best. He delivers an array of interesting characters, from a gigolo in love (for some reason, quite a shy gigolo), to a gossiping lady of the court. He brings tons of energy to the performance and creates the only “serious”, emotional character of the drama – a nice contrast with the rest of the personas.
Some of the director’s concepts didn’t sit well with me – like the complete mix of accents, with the French accent being very much used only at the beginning of the first act and completely forgotten as the play progressed. The production seemed quite imbalanced in many moments – like with the jokes: when found amusing by the writer, some are repeated a couple of times – damaging the original joke, unfortunately.
Unfortunately on the night of my visit, something was wrong with the lights, and strong green and pink filters cast at the actors created a weird discoloration from the audience’s perspective. Lights seemed to also have issues in general, with some moments keeping actors in the dark, but I hope these could get fixed in the next shows.
Oh, and one more factor that I think is important to know before you go see this show. The space of Drayton Arms auditorium is comfortable for short performances or stand-ups of up to an hour. But during longer plays like this one, you end up feeling all crippled and may experience a “dead butt syndrome”. So bring a cushion with you!
“Countess Jeanne and the Necklace Scam” at Drayton Arms Theatre
11-22 October 2022
Writer/Director: Bern Hogan
Producers: Bern Bern Hogan and Sophia Danes-Gharbaoui
Jeanne: Isabel Lamers
Marie Antoinette: Elise Williams
Rétaux: Joshua Jewkes
Nicholas: Hannah Moss