Review: Blackadder Goes Forth at Dereham Memorial Hall
The recreation of an undisputed TV classic – whose characters were made memorable by some of the most enduring names in British comedy– must have been a daunting mission for an amateur stage cast.
But Dereham Theatre Company’s “cunning plan” of performing Blackadder Goes Forth to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has to be seen as a victory for this ambitious crew.
As a huge fan of the sitcom, I’ll admit I wasn’t initially sure how I’d react to seeing such recognisable characters as Edmund Blackadder, Private Baldrick and General Melchett being played by anyone other than Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson and Stephen Fry.
But, thanks to some superb casting, any worries were quickly forgotten, with an exuberant performance from Lee Chapman as the over-enthusiastic Lieutenant George, Gareth Evans clearly enjoying his role as the sycophantic Captain Darling and, of course the sneering, sarcastic Captain Blackadder, played with all the necessary swagger by Lee Johnson.
Perhaps inevitably, the actors occasionally reverted to the mannerisms and phrasing of their TV counterparts – but all managed to put their own stamp on these much-loved personalities.
I was also unsure how many genuine laughs would be available from a script whose punchlines are so well-known, but an appreciative audience at Dereham Memorial Hall soon set me straight on that too – with many of the larger giggles generated by the delightfully dim-witted Baldrick, portrayed brilliantly by Andy Lofthouse.
Under the direction of Paul Woodhouse, the story moved effortlessly between the ramshackle squalor of the Flanders trenches to a field hospital and the offices of magnificently-mustachioed General Melchett, played to pompous perfection by Tony Wilds.
The set design was fantastic and the sound and lighting crew also deserve credit for recreating the wartime atmosphere with the injection of period music and the sounds and noise of an artillery barrage.
The show, which finished its three-night run on Saturday, incorporated three episodes of the TV series, culminating in the final episode named “Goodbyeee”, in which our heroes, having finally accepted their duty, go “over the top” into No Man’s Land as the lights fade, leaving the audience to assume that, in all probability, they would have perished in the ensuing machine gun fire.
Amid all the jokes and satire, and as intended by the original script of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, this moment alone was sobering enough to overcome all the preceding jollity for a moment and send the audience home thinking about the indiscriminate wastage of so many lives – all those naive Baldricks, the patriotic Georges and the world-weary Blackadders who never returned from the Great War.
To reinforce that message of remembrance, the cast re-appeared wearing red poppies to accept their well-deserved applause.