Blackadder Goes Forth

April 7, 2016 | By | 1 Reply More

★★★★☆    Imaginative

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 6 – Sat 9 Apr 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Sensitively acted and particularly well staged, EPT’s Blackadder Goes Forth is loyal to its source but has enough individuality to stand on its own.

The fourth and final series of Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson’s historical sitcom written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, is not the most obvious candidate for a theatrical production. This particular series, set on the Western Front during World War One, is probably the best known, and has played a part in reinforcing the ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of that conflict.

Blackadder, Darling, Baldrick, Melchett & George. Photo Mario McPherson/Kirsty Boyle

Blackadder, Darling, Baldrick, Melchett & George. Publicity photo Mario McPherson/Kirsty Boyle

Rather than being a theatrical adaptation or any kind of re-imagining, this is simply a performance of three of the original scripts – the first programme, the third and (unsurprisingly to anyone who knows the series) the last. This gives the piece an unavoidably episodic structure, but aside from the frequent changes of scene, which is the most obvious sign of the script’s TV origins, it is less intrusive than it might be.

What is equally unsurprising is that the original performances of the roles will be uppermost in the audience’s minds; it is to the cast’s credit that, despite the inevitable aping of mannerisms and intonation of the television actors, they manage to make the roles largely their own.

However, the simple restaging of whole episodes will always lead to some doubts about the value of the whole enterprise – the most obvious audience will be fans of the original, and there has to be a reason why they would watch this rather than putting the DVD on. This is presumably at least partly why stage shows derived from well-loved films tend to throw in a bunch of musical numbers.

inspired

If this production never quite manages to escape from the shadow of the programme, it has a creditable stab at it. That it works as well as it does is due in no small part to director Kirsty Boyle. Her use of the acting area is nothing short of inspired, with the problems of repeatedly depicting a series of different locations overcome beautifully. The trench, in particular, is one of those clever ideas that works so well that it seems obvious in retrospect.

No Man's Land. Photo Mario McPherson/Kirsty Boyle

No Man’s Land. Rehearsal photo Kirsty Boyle

It cannot be much of a spoiler to say that the most famous part of the whole Blackadder canon is the end of Goes Forth, and what most people will be itching to know is how it is staged. Without giving anything away, the answer is – very well indeed. In fact, heresy as it may be, there is a case for suggesting this defiantly theatrical moment works better than the rather cliched way it was done on TV.

Boyle also manages the cast well. Being confronted by performers in uniform as soon as you enter the venue is excellent, and even if this suggests a more Brechtian production than what follows, it demonstrates the sureness of touch on display.

Simon Eilbeck’s upperclass twit Lieutenant George is a particularly effective characterisation, managing to go beyond the stereotype of the character to suggest something human and vulnerable. Similarly, Pat Hymers manages to nail both Captain Darling’s obsequious toadying and the cowardice within.

funny and not a little frightening

Graham Bell’s General Melchett has to overcome a comedy moustache and a snorting laugh that is so like Stephen Fry’s that it is impossible to put the original performance from your mind at first. However, he does succeed in both being very funny and not a little frightening as a deranged brass-hat sending countless men to be slaughtered.

Going over the top - George, Darling, Blackadder and Baldrick. Photo Mario McPherson/Kirsty Boyle

Going over the top – George, Darling, Blackadder and Baldrick. Publicity photo Mario McPherson/Kirsty Boyle

Blackadder and Baldrick are such iconic characters, so completely identified with Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tony Robinson, that it seems crazy to even think of playing them. Yet Iain Menzies’s Baldrick is extremely successful, refusing to milk any laughs, instead playing with a deadpan dignity and a great deal of pathos.

Mike Brownsell not surprisingly takes some time to settle into the role of Captain Blackadder, but he makes the part his own, also resisting what must have been a huge temptation to overplay. Gordon Braidwood (General Haig) and Nicola McLeod (Bob) are equally assured in smaller roles.

Credit, too, to those other soldiers who are used so effectively at the beginning and the end. The attention to detail in the costumes and props is quite astonishing – the realistic-looking barbed wire is particularly good. This reflects the attention to detail throughout the production.

In the end, this will probably appeal more to Blackadder’s many fans than to anyone else, as it never quite manages to truly escape its small-screen origins. However, it is difficult to imagine any of those fans being disappointed, which shows how true to the strange mixture of cynicism and pathos of the original this production remains.

Running time 1 hours 55 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 April 2016
Evenings Weds – Fri: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30 pm
Full details and tickets: http://www.ept.org.uk/shows/show=201604blackadder.html

ENDS

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  1. Susan wales says:

    I had only ever seen wee extracts from the TV series so had no preconceptions really. I thoroughly enjoyed this production. The ending was particularly good. There was complete chilling silence in the audience.
    Just a shame it was broken so quickly when the cast ‘rose from the dead’ to take their bows rather than the curtain fall and open again for the cast to appear for their well deserved applause.

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