Caustic wit and poignancy as Blackadder Goes Forth in Stratford

Blackadder Goes Forth
Blackadder Goes Forth

Nick Le Mesurier reveiw Blackadder Goes Forth, presented by the Bear Pit Theatre Company at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

In this centenary year of the end of hostilities in the so-called war to end wars, there is need for a little levity in our remembrances. Blackadder nailed the anti-war message back in 1989 with its characteristic blend of sharp observation, caustic wit, hyperbole and pathos.

The absurdity of the conflict, which saw “lions led by donkeys”, as many have claimed, also saw millions of good men on both sides sacrificed, arguably for nothing. Whether the claim is deserved is another matter, and both the TV series and the play of Blackadder Goes Forth ignore any evidence to the contrary. This is satire, full on: bitter, tragic and often very funny.

The stage version of the TV series, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, reproduces three of the episodes in the series pretty exactly, with the same jokes, the same inflections. First up we have Captain Cook, in which Edmund Blackadder (Paul Tomlinson) tries to persuade General Melchett (Roger Ganner) that he is a talented war artist and thus ripe for transfer to Paris, for purposes of research of course. Then there’s Private Plane, in which the flashiest of flashy heroes in the air, Lord Flashheart (David Mears) drops in to sow mayhem amongst the troops. And there’s the final episode, Goodbyee, in which Edmund tries a last-ditch attempt to get out of the big push by pretending to be mad. This is the episode that contains the famous scene in which our heroes rush towards the enemy guns in slow-mo. It’s one thing to do it on film, but another to do it live. It’s done beautifully here.

The play and the cast play a pretty straight bat. The acting under David Mears’s direction is, of course, tip-top. Baldrick (Nathan Brown) has all of Tony Robinson’s gauche innocence and charm. Rowan Atkinson’s original Blackadder was a man fundamentally, and willingly, alone in a crowd of lesser men, as arguably befits the professional soldier. Paul Tomlinson has some of the original’s edge, but seemed to me to feel somehow he was socially, as well as intellectually, superior, which wasn’t there in the original. Melchett (Roger Ganner) is as mad as a box of frogs, and Captain Darling (Richard Ball) has all the sly cunning of a timid schoolboy. Thomas Hodge gave a lusty performance as the gung-ho George. Other characters include the wonderfully over the top German flying ace Baron von Richtoven (Justin Osbourne), a perfect counterpart to David Mears’s very loud and very manic Lord Flashheart. Graham Tyrer gets to deliver the famous “fate worse than death” speech by Lieutenant Von Gerhardt, and Charlotte Froud and Phillip Hickson provide admirable support as Driver Parkhurst, Flashheart’s bit of military totty, and Fieldmarshall Haig.

For me, one of the most poignant lines is spoken by Captain Darling, just before he goes over the top to his death in no man’s land. He says he had hoped to get through the whole show and return to work, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, and marry Doris. That says it all. The cast do not return for a bow.

* The show runs until Monday November 12. Visit www.thebearpit.org.uk or call 01789 403416 to book.