Tag Archives: Joe Palmer

All binge, no cringe

BLACKADDER II

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th June, 2021

My heart sinks a little when I hear theatre companies are tackling this kind of thing, more so when it’s a well-beloved series like Blackadder II – Will the production be no more than a patchy impression of the show, where the cast, no matter how good they may be, cannot possibly hope to emulate the iconic performances of the television stars?  And why should I drag myself out when the show is easily watchable at home?  (I’m not a fan of tribute bands, either!)

That being said, director Kevin Middleton, aware of the pitfalls, tackles the material with aplomb, making full use of a range of projected backcloths (cod-Elizabethan etchings designed by Colin Judges) thereby enabling almost instantaneous scene-changes (with a giddying effect) allowing the action to flow much as it would on the telly.  Middleton also restricts the set to furniture that can be wheeled on and off in seconds, and so there is an old-school, Shakespearean aspect to the staging, married with modern-day technology.  It gives the production its own style, and it works extremely well.

The task for the actors is meeting audience expectations and imbuing the well-loved characters with something of themselves.  As Edmund Blackadder, the most sarcastic man in Elizabethan England, Shaun Hartman channels rather than impersonates Rowan Atkinson, in a role that was tailor-made for Atkinson, and is note-perfect in his sardonic intonation, skilfully managing the verbal fireworks and dazzling hyperbole of his lines.  Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s script shines through, reminding us this is their best work, collectively and as solo writers.

Hartman is supported by a talented cast, notably a lively Katie Goldhawk as the spoilt and girlish Queen Elizabeth whose cruelty is never far beneath the surface.  Mark Shaun Walsh is an undiluted delight as Sir Percy Percy, making the role his own with high-camp imbecility and physical comedy.  The greatest departure from the TV version comes in Brian Wilson’s Lord Melchett, dispensing with the bombast of Stephen Fry’s portrayal in favour of a more understated interpretation.  It works very well, providing contrast with the excesses of the others.  Karen Leadbetter is brain-dead fun as Nursie, also appearing as Edmond’s formidable puritanical aunt – an excellent opportunity to display her range!  Becky Johnson is appealing as Kate/Bob in the show’s best episode, where Shakespearean transvestism drives the plot; and I also enjoyed Simon King’s monstrous Bishop of Bath & Wells and his charade-playing Spanish torturer.  Daniel Parker brings a Brummie edge to his Baldrick, demonstrating flawless comic timing in his reactions, while Paul Forrest’s villainous Prince Ludwig mangles the English language to hilarious effect.  Joe Palmer’s Lord Flashheart starts big and keeps growing, assisted by a ludicrous fright wig—The wigs and beards are hilarious, too.  Coupled with the backdrops, they give the show a cartoonish aspect.  As ever at the Crescent, the costumes (by Rose Snape and Stewart Snape) are superb and production values are high.

Special mention goes to the irrepressible Nick Doran, singing the theme song between episodes, including a bespoke version that starts the show, reminding us to switch off our phones etc.

There are some gloriously funny moments, expertly handled, culminating in a raucous rendition of a bawdy song at the end of the third episode.  This is when you realise they’ve pulled it off.  They’ve paid homage to one of the greatest TV shows of all time and made it their own, and it’s wildly entertaining and extremely funny.

Because each of the four episodes recreated here is self-contained, there is nothing in the way of character development and no through storyline.  The sitcom format demands that everything is reset to the status quo.  And so, it’s exactly like binge-watching a series.  After three episodes on the trot, Netflix asks if you’re still watching.  By the time we get to the fourth one, I have had my fill.  Consistently enjoyable though this production is, you can have too much of a good thing.

****

Blackadder (Shaun Hartman), Percy (Mark Shaun Walsh), and Baldrick (Daniel Parker) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

romeo spiderman

Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood