AS A REVIEWER back working again after lockdown my happy journey continues; this time at The Crescent for the in-house Company’s opening night of their first production back in the main house. The cheers from the audience and the post-show bar jubilation said it all really – Birmingham’s premier league theatre company has returned.
The show is Blackadder II – hardly a small undertaking to stage either. There are many fundamentals, the biggest being the audience expectancy to engage with the characters they love from a legendary TV series – yet lines have to be drawn up twixt stage and screen.
Director Kevin Middleton has linked together four of the most popular episodes from the Blackadder Elizabethan, ‘mad Queen Bess’ period. He does this in a unique and dangerous way by making the backdrop a kaleidoscopic, three dimensional cyclorama into which, by the magic of green screen filming, the mad cap characters can pop in and out as if by magic. After the first time this happens it becomes a natural adjunct to the on stage live performance rather than a conjuring trick. Colin Judges (whose set designs at the Crescent are the stuff of legends) is responsible for this new theatrical wonder.
Middleton also paints great pictures with his real-time, on stage actors – there are no untidy bus queues. Indeed each group ensemble is set and crafted with the detail of a classical painting. Add to this a cavalcade of exquisite and colourful frocks from the talented costume design duo, Rose and Stewart Snape – plus a lighting strategy to compliment all from John Gray.
Nick Doran, with a big beaming smile and a naughty sparkle in the eyes, starts, links and ends the show as the front of curtain minstrel.
Behind the tabs we meet smooth-of-tongue and fleet-of-foot Shaun Hartman as Lord Edmund Blackadder himself. Hartman never stops working and has that very special actorial quality of letting us into his private thoughts – this is indeed a masterful outing for him.
Veteran Crescent actor Brian Wilson puts in a delightfully dry-humoured performance as Lord Melchett – contrasted completely by the romping and correctly over-the-top delivery of Lord Percy Percy by Mark Shaun Walsh.
Daniel Parker makes a droll and appropriately cringe worthy Baldrick, whilst Katie Goldhawk is a delicious tour-de-force as the stark raving mad Queen Bess.
All of the company is worthy of note – honestly there is not a weak link. So in addition to the aforementioned characters take a bow the multi role-playing Karen Leadbetter, Simon King, Becky Johnson, Paul Forrest, Joe Palmer and Michael McLernan.
I read that this show has been a long time in coming thanks to Covid lockdowns. Rehearsal room comforts were replaced with socially distanced, outdoor winter rehearsals, which happened in the ‘Walking Dead’ setting of the deserted car park next door. Performance dates were constantly shifted meaning the cast ended up being more an SAS offshoot than thespian troupers.
Middleton’s production was seamless in its delivery on first night, there were no major gaps or pauses to tighten up – a tweak or two maybe where adrenalin moments will be replaced with easier moves, but essentially the director has done his job very well – his show is up, off and running with ‘winner’ written all over it.
If you are a Blackadder aficionado, true fans in attendance informed me that you will appreciate the due deference shown to the TV classic. If, like me, you are a relative outsider to the party then the voyage of discovery is a very happy one.
It is so good to have the Crescent back in the house and in such top form – book your seats and let a well drilled despotic rabble engross you in this horribly hysterical, historically-incorrect, gorgeously gratuitous and oh-so-naughty romp.
Blackader II runs between now and September 4, click here for times, tickets and more information.