first night

Blackadder II

Emily Jones ventures back into the past with Ooook!

Welcome back to Merry Olde England, chaps, with Ooook! Productions’ bleak bravado taking on the clipped ramblings of the absurd in Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s hit Blackadder II. I must admit, I had high hopes for the play but director Hannah Ryan delivered, piecing together the iconic elements of such a well-worn television series. The snappy historical episodes set in the Elizabethan era, transported the audience from Buckingham Palace to the rowdy home of Lord Blackadder, critiquing those who ‘belong in the gutter’ and everyone in between. This is a production in which its brilliant concoction of humour, love and murky comedy, creates an undeniable blend of delight and disgust within the members of its audience.

This is a production which seamlessly caters for as much the tongue-in-cheek historian as those who simply wish to gawp at a vicarious assortment of crazies. Certainly, its allegiances to the original script allow for the loquacious and learned veneer of its characters to mask the truly funny reality of its subject. The simplicity of well-worn phrases are here moulded to the literal, lending a sense of comic realism to comments such as ‘get the door’ and irony in their belief of ‘returning to the real world’, leaving us in no doubt that we are not only experiencing the pitiful degeneration of the characters on stage, but the truly witty backdrop to which they are held. The play as a whole is performed with cunning and the expectedly humdrum traits of ordinary characters such as Neil Robinson’s  Baldrick were certainly no less impressive than the heightened airs of Kalil Copley as Lord Melchett, whose expressive performance as the ‘grovelling toady’ did the character justice.

The flawless set changes, maintained the flow of the snappy, blunt humour and the fragmented scenes allowed for a surprisingly upbeat portrayal of the action, within its otherwise cheerless content. The regular asides and simple lighting changes allowed for the audience to maintain the pace of the action, whilst the characters blissfully drifted in and out of their own consciousness. Equally, Laurence Stanley as the drunken minstrel punctuated the performance with regular nods to the audience and, oh so ironically keeping us in check with the ludicrous “plan” of the protagonists, maintaining simultaneously unorthodox mix of silly and scathing, echoing the wider reception of the show.

The appearance of the play itself was something to behold. We were greeted with a juxtaposing spectrum of brightness and dark in the lighting effects, no doubt exaggerating the blazingly obvious hierarchical divides within the plot. This was furthered by Frankie White’s delightfully droll and squeaky portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, ever threatening to behead subjects who so much as breathed hesitantly in her presence. The outlandish costumes have a comical slant in themselves, shedding light on the questions of sexuality and instances of blunder with instances of Baldrick’s dress and Kate’s tights, bringing forth a sense of amusing simplicity within the increasingly complex loving sub-plot the play took on.

The costumes further the idea that director Hannah Ryan has wished to play on the stereotypes of the English class system, exhibiting the disparity between the Queen’s ornate dress and Baldrick’s headgear housing a mouse or a chunk of cheese to attract not his next mate but, indeed his next meal. Equally the overt humour found in the ironic purity of Lord and Lady Whiteadder struck the audience with pangs of laughter as their white gowns and large crucifix’s contrasted both their speech and their other, lowlier characters as well. Kirsten Lees’ sharp, deadpan humour carried not only her transformation from Lady Whiteadder to the wizened old woman, but her clear cut mannerisms made her a real hit, enveloping the play as a whole. Similarly Chaz Pitman’s movement from Lord Whiteadder to the dumbstruck character Ploppy epitomized the production entirely, encapsulating the bleakest realities of the Elizabethan era in its ailing state, but with a farcical edge and a smiling face.

Indeed, it was not only the language or costumes of the play which made it such a smash, the animated silences of many carried it along as well. Certainly, Georgia Cassarino’s wide-eyed expressions and form of glazed happiness expressed in her role as ‘nursey’ captured the moral ignorance of the play, and lifted the humour from its former bleakness to a sort of maternal doting pride. Equally ‘Flashheart’ Phillipe Bosher’s grippingly bold movements on stage towards the end of the second act were not hindered by their sudden introduction, but surprisingly welcome in their unexpectedly crude and abrupt manner. It was the agreeably offensive remarks and amusing facial gestures which made this Lothario so enthralling that the on-stage effects seemed almost trivial by comparison

However, on the whole it was Tom McNulty as Blackadder himself who stole the show; the so-called ‘ruthless sadistic maniac’, mirrored by his dreary intonation, disinterest and sharp humour really took the production by its horns. The most success undoubtedly was seen in the grippingly disjointed and frenzied party scene, wherein it seemed all elements of Elizabethan society gathered, embodying the endearingly hit-and-miss nature of the production in all its inebriated fashion. Here, McNulty was certainly in his element, capturing the chaotic atmosphere to a T.

With a satisfyingly sharp ending, mingled with its slapstick tendencies and playful awkwardnesses of rogues, side-kicks, lords and ladies; we are left truly as bedraggled and exhausted as the rest. Fortunately unscathed, we leave with a feeling of triumph for Ooook!, as it seems impossible to see this riotous romp as anything other than a truly great reworking of the ever-popular BBC programme. True to form, the characters themselves are not so lucky, but even in their misfortune, we get a sense that they are as enthralled by the experience in all its grotesque and zany glory.

 

Emily Jones

 

14 June 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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