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.
Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble. Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.
Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles. Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses. He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.
Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins. This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.
Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value. Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim. There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.
The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in. Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!
Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect. The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.
A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent. I had a boss time.
Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action. The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens. And that is the point. The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently. It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times. I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.
Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero. He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven. Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her. We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities… The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality. There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.
There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows. We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.
Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next). In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.
An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th September, 2015
We are accustomed to seeing films adapted into stage shows these days, usually as musicals. Here, adaptor Terry Johnson turns the iconic film of the swinging 60s into a thoroughly enjoyable comedy of sexual mores.
Fresh out of college, Benjamin Braddock lacks direction in life. An encounter with the wife of his father’s friend leads to sexual liaisons in a hotel room. Mrs Robinson, however experienced, is not enough for young Ben, who craves conversation as well as rumpy-pumpy, and so he latches onto his lover’s daughter instead. Before long, the situation unravels and Ben decides to leave it all behind, but will Elaine go with him, and is marriage the happy-ever- after it’s cracked up to be?
Shaun Hartman is excellent as the stumbling, fumbling Ben, and he is well-matched by Sarah Ridgley as Elaine. Tiffany Cawthorne is flawless as the casually predatory Mrs Robinson, oozing self-assurance as well as boredom. Brendan Stanley is her husband, really coming into his own when the truth becomes known to him in the second act. We can sympathise with his hurt and sense of betrayal but also laugh at his psychotic hot-headedness. Wanda Raven is hilarious as Ben’s excitable mother, and there is strong support from Helen Rose Carter in a number of roles, including a be-tassled stripper in a sleazy club. The mighty Colin Simmonds delivers a masterclass in comic timing as Ben’s bewildered father – his remarkable performance is worth the admission price alone, but he is surrounded by a company of highly effective actors who are too good to be upstaged. Director Keith Harris pitches every scene just right for maximum comic effect, allowing the dramatic moments to develop, and the simple but versatile set hints at the period rather than swamping us with detail. Similarly, Angela Daniels’s costumes are evocative, allowing the timeless qualities of the story to come to the fore.
Are we shocked today by Benjamin’s carrying-on? Not in the least but it’s interesting that included on the poster among the warnings of nudity and sexual activity is the advisement that herbal cigarettes will be smoked. This is how times have changed. (PS. Herbal cigarettes always stink the place out).
This production offers many delights: a funny script delivered with skill and panache. My one quibble is that some of the scene changes take a little long, adding to the running time, but because it’s early in the run, I’m sure the hard-working stage hands will pick up the pace. Some scenes end suddenly, revealing the script’s cinematic origins – transitions need to be snappy to match.
Once again, the Crescent delivers the goods to an extremely high standard. The Graduate plays until September 12th and is well worth a couple of hours of your time.