Blackadder Goes Forth
Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 14th November 2012
In this climax of CTW's succession of productions bringing iconic episodes of the Blackadder TV series to the Old Court stage, we are greeted by a well decorated dug-out complete with sandbags for their interpretation of Blackadder Goes Forth. Such a celebrated and beloved programme, originally performed by some of the comic greats of television, Dean Hempstead gives himself a real Directorial challenge in achieving performances that the audience will recognise and enjoy, encouraging his actors to both interpret but also undeniably imitate the characterisations that the capacity houses will expect to see.
As per CTW's previous Blackadder productions, the title role is performed by David Chilvers. Poker-faced and suave, he delivers the biting sarcasm, extended similes and sneering cynicism of this character with poise and clarity, achieving the nasal vocal quality of the original but perhaps requiring more of a range of facial reactions. His disgusting yet lovable sidekick Private Baldrick is once again played by CTW veteran Mark Preston. Gormless and innocent, his characterisation is sweet and bumbling with enough of a nod to Tony Robinson but also managing to make the part his own. Bruce Thomson joins this cast as the hopelessly effervescent Lieutenant George. His constant good humour, naivety and simplicity is well portrayed, and although Bruce's bouncing physicality was often fitting, a bit more stillness occasionally would have given the excitable movement more impact. Captain Darling is taken on by Harry Sabbarton, gurning and squirming his part with delightfully sycophantic adoration and efforts at one-upmanship over Blackadder. General Melchett is portrayed by a booming Steve Parr, playing the pompous, childish warmonger with relish. Despite needing a straighter posture to help command a more defining stage presence, he is particularly funny during the "Major Star" episode, but there's not enough "Baaah!" throughout for me. Among the supporting cast there is a sweet cameo from Ruth Cramphorn as Bob, a gloriously smiley portrayal of the soft Corporal Perkins from Matthew Martin and an enjoyably shouty Corporal Jones, leader of the firing squad, played by Martin Robinson.
Costumes are all excellently detailed, managing to achieve distinctive differences despite most characters clearly being in uniform throughout. Props too are well chosen and fit the period and requirements well. I especially liked the cardboard cricket bat, and Speckled Jim looked very good with an hilarious feathery effect as he met his sticky end.
The only element of this production that really works against the success of the comedy is the frequency of the scene changes. As can often be the case when trying to so loyally recreate scripts written for television, the writing allows for short location-based scenes switching quickly and seamlessly from one to the next - far more difficult to achieve live on stage. As excellent as CTW's dug-out looks, it is quite roomy for a space in which the men would have been living on top of one another, and perhaps a split stage created with lighting effects could have allowed for the variety of locations with a smoother, pacier change between them. As it is, the well-constructed set pieces with ingenious flappy flats look great, and the stage management was organised and swift, but the laughs are still lost between the too-numerous scenes. That said, the innovative staging of the famous finale of "Goodbyeee" is absolutely brilliant, achieving everything it should by bringing a sudden lump to the throat of the silenced audience.
The intelligent, witty Blackadder scripts achieve a singularly insightful parody of the ludicrous truths of each of the historical periods they explore, but this final series set during WWI also manages to maintain an utter respect for the soldiers who risked and gave their lives in this horrific war. A difficult juxtaposition to pull off, achieved with both hilarious and heart wrenching success by CTW in this worthy production. I hope their multiple fundraising efforts have achieved as much success for The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes.