Monday, 26 June 2017

Review Blondel

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Tim Williams and Tim Rice
Music by Stephen Oliver
Additional Music By Matthew Pritchard

A Wandering Minstrel

The year 1983 marked the election of new MP Jeremy Corbyn for Islington North, alongside fellow parliamentary newcomers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As if that wasn't enough, lyricist Tim Rice had his first musical theatre venture without his long-time composing partner Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Blondel (Connor Arnold) is a broad-shouldered medieval hunk with a cartoonish blonde quiff but yes, a bit of a dim Blondel, compared to his activist girlfriend (Jessie May). She's a  scrubber (yes, that's the level of the jokes) in the royal kitchen.

There's a touch of Princess Diana frenzy as the plebs jostle for the best view of their self-absorbed monarch Richard (Neil Moors) as he comes and then goes on yet another expedition.

Jostling for power is Richard's younger brother John (James Thackeray), no match for his brother in the manliness stakes, who hires an assassin (Michael Burgen) to do his bro in.

There's a Jack of The Beanstalk feel as Blondel, an unemployed medieval performinng arts graduate. leaves his Mum (Katie Meller) and sets out to gain the favour of the King.

In 1983 the European Union project was going on apace, so the European references could now go either way. We found it hard to isolate any recent updates, but it did feel dated. We caught the reference to Norman Tebbit's On Your Bike speech  and the introduction of the pound coin

And of course Blondel is firmly British - there's not even a mention of a medieval Eurovision ;) - seeking to be Master Of The King's Music.

Now a singing British monarchist wandering around the continent would maybe excite different kinds of comments. But back in 1983, the show did enough to warrant a West End transfer although only for a shortish run.

The story of Blondel, the troubadour who loyally searched around the castles of Europe for Richard the Lionheart who was abducted on his return from the Crusades, might once have been considered as a vehicle for a Danny Kaye movie. It's that sort of story which would have been fine for the talents of Kaye's wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine.

But by 1983, the era of the rock musical was upon us - helped not inconsiderably by Tim Rice - but Blondel, although at times mildly amusing, never manages to hit the heights with a plethora of nondescript songs, music by the late Stephen Oliver with additions by Matthew Pritchard,  superimposed on the Blondel legend and derivative college humour. 

The cast and crew of Blondel do their best but, to be honest, this feels less like an integrated fully-fledged musical and more of a 1980s' topical undergraduate review on the hollowed out globe of the medieval world designed by Ryan Dawson Laight.

That's not to say the cast isn't game and pushes it as far as they can.

The monks' barbershop quartet of David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville still make for precise and charming narrators. Neil Moors is a hearty, unintentionally callous Richard. The band, bass guitar, cello, violin and percussion, under the musical direction of Simon Holt, is exceptional. 

Director Sasha Regan and choreographer Chris Whittaker do their utmost to inject invention and raise the stakes.

It's not the fault of the hard-working cast that this remains a dated piece, wandering all over the place and soon becoming wearisome. Too rooted in the 1980s, it's a lower range amber light for a corny Brit-centric Euro mishmash musical. 

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