There’s a song towards the end of Act One of Blondel when Richard the Lionheart and Saladin are seated behind a desk discussing the crusades, titled ‘Call it a Draw’.
It’s done in the style of a football commentary and oddly enough it almost exactly mirrors the show itself. It’s a game of two very different halves; If I’d have left at the interval I’d have been mightily disappointed; If I’d seen only Act Two I’d have thought five stars weren’t enough. As things stand, the show probably falls somewhere between the two, so a (generous) four.
The big problem, as I’ve written on so many occasions previously, is with the book, credited to Tom Williams and Tim Rice. The first twenty minutes of the show don’t work dramatically, so the knock-on effect is that the cast have to work VERY hard (and they do) to try to pull things back in Act Two.
As things stand, in spite of the quartet of Monks -who function as a very effective and entertaining narrator throughout – telling us that the story’s about Blondel, the title character, the ‘I want’ song is ‘All I Need Are Words’ – Not exactly up there with World Peace and a cure for cancer – and I began to drift off.
(I have to say that given the heat of this new theatre space I’m surprised people just didn’t pass out. Was it REALLY conceived without air-conditioning? Somebody’s head ought to be on the block…I digress…)
The story is set during the reign of Richard I and as soon as he appears he draws all the energy away from the titular Blondel, and the narrative effectively becomes his, which is something of a problem. Inexplicably almost all of the English characters are given northern accents for no reason I could discern…
The plot. A workshy and not particularly likeable musician (book trouble – why should I care about this man? Answer, I don’t…) Blondel (Connor Arnold, Liverpool accent) is in love with an emancipated-before-her-time young woman (book trouble – why should I care about this young woman? Answer, I don’t…) called Fiona (Jessie May, Manchesterford?).
Fiona wants to be freed from servitude, so King Richard (Neil Moors – King, so RP) decides to take her off with him on crusade. He gets captured by the Duke of Austria (Jay Worthy – various), so Blondel sings at the castles of Europe in the hope of attracting King Richard’s attention and discovering where he’s being held – as when he finds Richard, he’ll find Fiona.
Back in England Richard’s younger brother John (James Thackeray – deliciously evil RP) is plotting to get the crown, and employs an Assassin (Michael Burgen – various. He’s a master of disguise) to help things along.
There’s nice lighting from Iain Dennis, and the band under Simon Holt sound much bigger than they are, but the real stars in this black-box production are the cast, especially Neil Moors whose voice shines in this un-miked production.
New to me, and erupting like a supercharged Alan Cumming, is James Thackeray as a very-physical King John. His performance of ‘No Rhyme for Richard’ two thirds through Act One breathes new life into the show and proves the highpoint of the half. I’d be astonished if there isn’t an Offie in the offing.
Finally, and possessing a gift for comic timing that borders on genius I have to mention Michael Burgen as the Assassin. His character creeps up on you – no pun intended – growing in Clouseau-like stature. A marvel to behold.
All in all, some fine performances, but given the number of people who’ve had a hand on the property at one time or another Blondel still disappoints. Perhaps it’s a case of too many cooks…