As The Scarlet Pimpernel opens at the egg theatre for Christmas, Emma Clegg talks to Emma Earle of Pins and Needles Productions and discovers that the Pimpernel was the very first superhero in disguise

The Scarlet Pimpernel, a novel written by Baroness Orczy and published in 1905, is set during the Reign of Terror in 1793–1794 after the start of the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel character is notable for being the first superhero in disguise – ahead of Zorro (1919), Superman (1938), Batman (1939) and X-Men (1953), he paved the way for the narrative model of the daring hero acting incognito. “That is one of the reasons we felt that the story would feel relevant and interesting in 2018, because we are so used now to the superhero character with the secret identity,” explains Emma Earle, artistic director of Pins and Needles Productions.

There have been films, notably with Leslie Howard in 1934 and Anthony Andrews in 1982, but the story has not become associated with the stage: “There have been a few notable stage adaptations and a musical version of the Pimpernel over the years, but not a huge number. And this year the text itself is out of copyright. So we have the ability to be free to interpret the source material however we want.”

Here is the unseen dramatic art of the theatre. So how do you go about adapting a book into a play? “We have spent most of the year developing a stage adaptation with the writer Christopher William Hill,” says Emma. “That’s what we love, cherry-picking the stuff that really inspires us and that we think is theatrical or will speak to the target audience, whether under sixes or the six and above family audience. The challenge is to make something that was written at the turn of the century feel relevant to people in 2018 and find the opportunities to mash it up a bit.”

There is plenty of mashing up in this production. Described as ‘Blackadder meets The Incredibles’, it’s a swashbuckling tale of high wigs, disguise, intrigue, wordplay, puppetry, prancing, nonsense and (yes, indeed) lots of poodles. “The main aesthetic was to do with retaining some sense of period, but also giving it a bit of a punky edge, a bit of a modern overhaul,” says Emma. “So the costumes have a bit of Adam Ant, lots of clashing styles and colours and fabrics.” The same approach was used with the music, so a conventional set period piece might suddenly be interrupted with the screech of electric guitar or a thrumming dance beat.

Based on a book written in the early 20th century, the script has gone through the same mash-up treatment. “A lot of the language might feel quite old-fashioned and suddenly one of the characters might pick up a microphone, or there’s a joke in the show about Sir Percy Blakeney coming back from his travels, and describing this piece of chocolate in elaborate detail and then you realise he’s talking about a Toblerone. There are lots of anachronisms within the script, which is fun because it means we can introduce things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect with Georgian theatre.”

Sir Percy Blakeney, the Pimpernel’s alter ego, is an excessively flamboyant character who dresses in the latest outrageous fashions and revels in being centre stage. He comes across as a little stupid and shallow, but this is his fake identity – he is in fact a master of disguise. The Scarlet Pimpernel has a secret league of 20 spies who in the book are all English nobility, but in this version the secret spy league is a global phenomenon. The special skills they bring range from conventional fighting skills like being a master swordsman or something a little crazier such as being an expert embroiderer. There is a plan, you see, to rescue a zany character called the Mad Count, who is trapped in a secret club outside Calais where he gives a performing poodle act every night. The secret league’s mission is to rescue the Mad Count and part of their plan involves a hot air balloon. So the expert embroiderer stitches together the skin for the hot air balloon. The villain is a character called Chauvelin, a representative of the French government, and he has a phobia of poodles. Enough said.

“The main aesthetic was to do with retaining some sense of period, but also giving it a bit of a punky edge, a bit of a modern overhaul”

There are only five actors, so there is plenty of multi-roling. “The actors are really put through their paces to create a lot of different types of character,” says Emma. “It’s a busy play with the staging and the music and there are some songs in the show as well.” Despite having such a compact acting crew, there are many people working on the show behind the scenes, so the rehearsals will be much more crowded than you might imagine with a lighting director, fight director, movement director, two main directors and the designer.

There’s also an imaginative set with lots of secret flaps that are manipulated by the actors. One minute there’s a pub called the Fisherman’s Rest and Whelk Bar and another minute the audience is presented with the interior of Sir Andrew’s house in London. This is an important part of the Pins and Needles’ approach: “As a company we like to do things where the audience are part of the imaginative equation – it’s not just left laid on a plate. So instead of giving your audience absolutely everything design wise, it’s nice to leave some gaps for them to fill.”

The production is designed for a family audience of six plus. ‘How do you cater for such a large target audience?’, I wonder. “One of the major differences,” explains Emma, “is that a six plus audience requires a two-act play, whereas a production for under sixes will be a maximum of 55 minutes, so there isn’t an interval, and your storytelling has to work across that time frame. So by adding an extra act, the narrative becomes denser. There are more plots and more characters and more twists and turns.” And in dealing with the grisly context of the French Revolution, some sensitivity is needed to cater for the target audience. “There’s the whole backdrop of the guillotine and chopping people’s heads off to tackle. And it’s working out, if you’re a six year old, how playful you can be with the baddy within a show, how dangerous can it feel,” says Emma. “So we are really sensitive to that and a lot of this will come out through the rehearsal process. And we have a brief preview period once the show is up so we can assess how the audience is going to receive it, and fine tune things that don’t quite work.”

Emma tells me that this Pins and Needles production was conceived as part of the egg’s incubator programme, which provides time, space and financial support to develop creative ideas. “With Pimpernel, Kate Cross [director of the egg] will be there on the first day of the first read-through and she’ll be back into rehearsals to watch us string things together for the first time and she’ll be giving us notes about concerns or recommendations she might have. It’s very much a joint process.”

Pins and Needles’ production of The Little Mermaid, also developed through the incubator programme, last year won the UK Theatre Award for best show for children and young people. Emma recollects, “I made a point of saying when we were accepting the award in London that this feels so special because The Little Mermaid had been supported by the egg over a long period and for us that is such a gift, because sometimes you are just expected to churn out a show too soon, too fast and there is not enough investment to make sure you are developing and doing the right thing.”

“You never really know with a new play and a title that is not a conventional Christmas offering how it is going to go down,” says Emma, in expectation of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s reception in Bath. With oodles of poodles, big wigs, foppish fashions, double disguises, witty wordplay and a secret hero mission that’s always going to be possible, it’s clearly going to make an impression. Just don’t lose your head.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Thursday 6 Dec to Sun 13 January, the egg. Tel: 01225 448844; theatreroyal.org.uk/venue/the-egg