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.
David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place. And that’s the crux of the plot. General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger. One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming. But who is right? And which way will Eisenhower jump?
Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about. His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child. But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help. Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue. His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.
Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.
The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece. As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance. It feels like a privilege to see him perform.
There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.
Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.
The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example. The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.
This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort. Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.
Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Chekhov done right is hugely demanding of any company attempting to stage one of his plays. But if the company does get it right, the play becomes less demanding on the audience and, in fact, becomes a pleasure. Here, director Andrew Brooks gets it right, eliciting nuanced and rounded performances from his cast, in this enjoyable adaptation by Christopher Hampton.
Jacob Williams shines as neurotic young writer Konstantin Gavrilovich Triplev – (the main problem I have with Chekhov is the names. Sometimes characters use the full name, a diminutive version, or a different name altogether, so it can take a while to sort out in your mind who they’re talking about!) Williams seems effortlessly naturalistic, balancing Kostia’s jaded outlook and insecurities with passion for the theatre. Konstantin’s descent into mental illness is expertly portrayed.
As his mother, Irina So-and-so and Such-and-such, Karen Leadbetter gives us the ego of the famous actress, her insensitivity and selfishness – all at Konstantin’s expense – in a measured performance that never goes over the top. John O’Neill is more down-to-earth as her lover, celebrated writer Trigorin; he really comes into his own when Trigorin describes the writer’s lot.
The object of Konstantin’s affections, the tragic Nina is played by Hannah Birkin, who is marvellous in the part. She even performs the pretentious twaddle of Konstantin’s play with conviction. This is a story of unrequited love – most of the characters are afflicted by it, setting off a chain reaction of events.
Dave Hill is endearing as ailing Uncle Pyotr, while the mighty Colin Simmonds perfectly inhabits his role as the family doctor. Amy Thompson is the picture of misery as the lovelorn Masha, and Papa Anoh Yentumi gives an assured performance as pipe-smoking Shamrayev.
The costumes by Pat Brown clearly depict the class structure of 1895 Russia, and the beautiful set by Keith Harris and Megan Kirwin, with its tree trunks and elegant furnishings, basks in the atmospheric lighting of Kristan Webb’s design. This is a classy production of a classic play, which brings out most of the humour inherent in the text with credible characterisations that keep on the right side of melodrama.
Eminently watchable and entertaining, this is one Chekhov you really ought to check out.
Dave Hill and Jacob Williams (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland. The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds. There is more to them than their doll-like exterior. Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place. It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent. Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic. Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?
I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters. Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way. Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.
These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.
Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words. Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments. She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible. Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches. But that’s just me.
Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up. His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield. The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint. I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.
Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out. Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone. It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out! Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us. Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on. Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.
Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt. Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself. I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.
Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.
Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip. Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own. The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.
A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them. I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun… I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.
You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)