Union Theatre, London – until 15 July 2017
I am often impressed with theatre’s ability to transform the most serious of topics into bouncy, chirpy musicals. Tim Rice and Tom Williams looked to the Crusades for their comedic tale of Richard I’s court musician, Blondel, but discarded much of the history. This 1983 show has some great numbers, but its frivolity and insubstantial book focusing on a personal journey rather than the larger political landscape is diminutive rather than powerfully sweeping. This is no Les Mis or Miss Saigon; it is instead an under-developed documentation of a rise to fame – but it still has its moments of fun.
Blondel is a directionless young artist who wants fame and fortune, but he lacks the drive and sense of self
to go for it properly. His feminist girlfriend Fiona some provides motivation, but more along the lines of ‘get a job or I’ll leave you’. Though he manages to capture the king’s attention and win a contract at court with a fluke of a hit, the Crusades cut that short and he is instead left to write songs for the king’s weaselly and murderous brother, Prince John. Love wins so Blondel chooses to attempt Fiona’s rescue from the Crusades – but he’s not very bright, so his aimless journey accompanied by a hapless assassin makes up a big chunk of the show.
The plot is silly and saccharine, with a love story at its heart and creative ambition trailing quite far behind. There’s a sweetness to Blondel and Fiona is commendably progressive, but the Crusades, which are often talked about, are noticeably absent. We briefly see the king and his motley crew in a pleasant meeting with Saladin and imprisoned in Austria, but there’s no grit or sense of danger, and an almost total lack of scale. There’s not much of a book and Stephen Oliver’s great music masks the lack of dramatic tension.
There are some good performances and great voices – particularly from the four a capella monks and Connor Arnold as Blondel – though the actors struggle to land the corny jokes that feel more suited to vintage pantomime than a musical with more serious pretences. They come in relentless streams batches and do little to further the story. There are some distinct updates to the text which help make it feel less dated, but the conventions on show are distinctly from musical theatre days gone by.
This is a musical that feels like it started out trying to be one thing and then totally lost its way so decided to try to be something else instead without properly starting over. More of a vehicle for the songs rather than a riveting story, the book seems like an afterthought added to a concept album and done so at the last minute. That’s not to say it’s not fun and enjoyable, but there’s frustratingly little substance or historical context.