Despite the many changes over the years Blondel remains an uneven work: it is always entertaining, and in the hands of a production that has the right, relentless, odd-ball approach it could still punch above its weight. The efforts of a talented cast and energetic directorial imagination deserve full credit, but it all only really takes off and becomes more than the sum of its often distinguished parts in the later stages.
Plantagenet foundations were rocked by the gentle twanging of a lute
Blondel started off life as a Rice-Lloyd Webber project but came into the world as a collaboration between Rice and an opera composer, the late Stephen Oliver. It did respectably on first outing in 1983 and has put in occasional, but not regular, appearances since. This new production contains additional songs by Rice with music by Matthew Pritchard, and a new book by Tom Williams.
The story returns us to the High Middle Ages for an alternative take on Richard the Lionheart’s decision to abandon his kingdom to his villainous and debauched brother, Prince John, and begin another crusade to reconquer Palestine for Christendom.
At the centre of the story is neither the monarch nor Robin Hood, but a minstrel, Blondel, who on learning of the king’s imprisonment sets off to sing his hit single I am a monarchist under the lee of every castle in Europe hoping the king will recognise it and respond. Thus he can save the king and recover his lost girlfriend, Fiona. Blondel is pursued by a hapless assassin, hired by Prince John, to ensure that his brother does not return.
Four very camp monks are our narrators and guides, singing in a consistently excellent a capella, with a touch of Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in for good measure. They are arch, knowing and played unashamedly for laughs and should really set the tone for the whole, and all the more so now that the new book pushes a style of humour that owes a lot to the affectionate, knowing parodic tropes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot and Blackadder. However, a very long and diffuse first half is weighed down by some of the heavier themes that were part of the original and seem a bit dated now.
Alongside pleasing zany nonsense there is a lot of sententious feminist, class-warfare boilerplate associated with the character of Fiona, Blondel’s girlfriend. In these early exposition scenes all the bondage is feudal, which is fine in its place, but this work just can’t bear the burden of seriousness (though even more deadpan than there is would be fine).
Carry on up the Crusades is really what it should be. It is a tad surprising that director Sasha Regan does not ground the first half of the evening more securely in this idiom. Her self-conscious, all-male G&S productions, with plenty of larking about, hit just the right arch, self-mocking tone for this work, however questionable this technique may be as a way of re-presenting G&S to modern audiences. Things work much better in the second act which has a consistent zip and zing to its numbers and a much more secure dramatic flow.
Part of the problem with the uncertain tone is that the goodies lack clear and appealing characters, and as ever, when this happens, the baddies just scoop up the limelight in their place. If lead characters do not establish themselves in our minds the villains just call the shots instead, and that really is the story early on – Prince John dominates, not least with his number No rhyme for Richard, the best song in first half, delivered with sneering, epicene panache by James Thackeray. The same goes for Michael Burgen’s excellent put-upon assassin: whenever he is on stage the focus is really on him rather than on Blondel or King Richard.
Blondel (Connor Arnold) is a bit of a cipher almost as if he were an automaton wound up regularly by his impressive cowlick. His ‘hit single’ is deliberately dreadful, and the joke wears thin after a while. If the central role is a vacuum, or a ‘holy innocent’ then there has to be a lot of fizz and energy around him to sustain interest, and this is not always the case.
The same applies to King Richard (Neil Moors) whose portrayal owes a lot to Graham Chapman’s King Arthur: he is a blond, bearded and gormless figure, whose witticisms are unintentional by and large (eg his self-description in prison as a ‘lonely chained male’). His best moment is Saladin Days, a neat parodic retrospect, very well sung.
We are much more intrigued by Prince John, whose narcissism and lust for power come across powerfully in both lyric and music; by some very witty material for the Austrian Duke (Jay Worthy) with inevitable Sound of Music references; and a delightful debunked Robin Hood (Craig Nash), whom everyone totally ignores.
Blondel’s girlfriend Fiona is a feisty role, with some attractive numbers (eg. Running back for more) that could live independently of this show; but unfortunately Jessie May lacks the vocal resources to put them across in the full-bodied, resonant way they deserve.
Stephen Oliver was a wonderful composer of music for specific contexts especially those provided by the BBC and RSC. Perhaps the best example was that endlessly evocative soundtrack for the unsurpassed radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. But his was not really an independent musical voice: the music comes most alive in parody or satire when he is asked for a given a specific tone and delivers a plausible musical framework drawn from his deep appreciation of musical history and genres. Free invention comes less easily, and the romantic and chorus numbers have a bland efficiency about them that palls on long exposure. The best music is that for John and for the monks (with more than a nod to the rich tradition of Anglican psalm singing!), and it was also a neat conceit to have the serially unsuccessful assassin’s music clothed in Latin rhythms.
Rice’s lyrics on the other hand are among his finest, more sharply witty than in his collaborations with Lloyd Webber, and always grateful on the voice and sufficient to the moment and mood. The additional music by Matthew Pritchard helps to smooth out wrinkles in the plot, with Call it a draw probably the most notable new item, for its deadly send-up of the clichés of sports journalism.
Costume is mainly medieval grunge, with touches of colour and eccentricity, and the fine lighting rig at the Union Theatre is used to good effect by Iain Dennis alongside inventive choreography from Chris Whittaker. The set by Ryan Dawson Laight maximises the amount of space available for action by limiting the set to a backdrop of a map of Europe with a large central hole punched through it, which could have been used a bit more than it was. The five-piece band, under the direction of Simon Holt, do an excellent job as accompanists and underscore, with plenty of filigree solo moments too.
Despite the many changes over the years this remains an uneven work: it is always entertaining, and in the hands of a production that has the right, relentless, odd-ball approach it could still punch above its weight. The efforts of a talented cast and energetic directorial imagination deserve full credit, but it all only really takes off and becomes more than the sum of its often distinguished parts in the later stages.