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.