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.
Three very different young women meet at university in the 1980s, share a student house for a couple of years, and then strive to keep in touch as their lives take them in different directions. That’s the plot of Amelia Bullmore’s play, written and first produced in 2013. With the action spanning thirty years, there are plenty of costume changes and music cues to convey the passage of time. Video projections, by Kristan Webb, identify locations, with sketches supposedly taken from art history student Rose’s sketchbook.
As middle-class, promiscuous Rose Katie Merriman is hilarious, adding physical comedy to her characterisation. Rose having trouble walking and sitting after an evening with the well-endowed Casper is a scream. Rose might be a bit of a sheltered, spoiled Southerner, but Merriman brings her great warmth.
Tiffany Cawthorne portrays sporty lesbian Di with youthful vigour and bright-eyed enthusiasm – until events bring out darker emotions. Bullmore’s writing gives us broad humour and delicate, sensitive scenes. Cawthorne handles everything the script requires of her with skill and conviction.
Completing the trio is Liz Plumpton as oddball Viv, who spends her student days dressed ‘like it’s the War’ and is not shy of deconstructing events with sociological analysis. Her militant intellectualism is in direct contrast with good-time girl Rose’s outlook; sparks fly between the two of them, which serve to deepen the bond between them. Plumpton is superb as the slightly dour, dry-witted Viv. It takes a tragic event to bring Viv to the boil in powerful scenes, and it’s all the more moving because of her previous behaviour.
It’s a warm-hearted, very funny piece. Director Kevin Middleton handles the sea changes of the women’s lives, navigating the differences in tone with subtlety and the broader comedic moments with splendid timing. There are some pacing issues with some of the transitions: scenes divided into snappy sub-scenes need quicker changes; there are too many slow fades to black, when these should be reserved for the changing of the years. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production. The depth and range of emotion depicted here raises the story beyond the realms of chick-lit. It’s an examination of the bonds of friendship: the fun to be had, the closeness, the sense of belonging, as well as the bitterness and sense of disappointment when life gets in the way.
Laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately very moving, this is a fine production of a powerful play, and it makes me wish Amelia Bullmore was more prolific!
Katie Merriman, Tiffany Cawthorne and Liz Plumpton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King. The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further. Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.
Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence. In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production. A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.
There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.
Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him. The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’. Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow. Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan. Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.
But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body. Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun. Her violence is as credible as it is merciless. Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence. It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience. It’s also the sweetest horror story going.
A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.
Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (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)