Review: Blackadder Goes Forth, Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival, Sophia Gardens, Cardiff

Andy Howells reviews the opening production of Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival’s season at Sophia Gardens, a stage adaptation of the classic TV comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth.

The Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival made a glorious return to Sophia Gardens on Thursday evening with Everyman Theatre’s stage presentation of Richard Curtis & Ben Elton’s Blackadder Goes Forth.

Set in the Western Front trenches during the Great War, the stage adaptation, (adapted from three television episodes) finds Captain Edmund Blackadder, his second-in-command, the gallant upper-class twit Lieutenant George St Barleigh and their loyal batman Private Baldrick awaiting instructions to go “Over the Top” into No-Man’s Land from their insane commander General Melchett.

Understandably, Blackadder has reservations as the Great War spirals out of control and with several “cunning plan’s” makes several hilarious attempts to get a ticket home to “Blighty” before “The Big Push”. These attempts including staging a concert party, faking madness, and sabotaging The General’s instructions are usually thwarted by Melchett’s right-hand man Captain Darling, but not before throwing Blackadder and his chums in deeper hot water.

An up-close and personal comedy staged in the open-air, Blackadder Goes Forth is directed by Simon H West and features a set resembling the trenches of the Great War. From marching Tommie’s crossing the audience area, via an authentic music hall stylised concert party to smoke blowing in from No-man’s land, there is no better way to enjoy this segment of The Blackadder saga.

Leading the action is Brian Smith’s portrayal of Edmund Blackadder. Smith makes the role his own by subtly breaking the fourth wall, while trying to make sense of the madness descending around him. It’s impossible not to feel some compassion for Blackadder, especially when he’s insanely condemned to death for shooting Melchett’s beloved Carrier Pigeon.

Chris Kendrick as George and Phil Gerken as Baldrick, both capture the essence of the original TV characterisations while adding their own personalities to the mix respectively. Their on-stage rapport alongside Smith’s Blackadder provides many hilarious and fast-paced moments.

Overseeing the madness is Osian Llewelyn Edwards’ glorious take on the insane General Melchett and Steve Smith as the sly Captain Darling. Both actors get their share of laughter from the audience as their characters bluster pomposity. Edwards also gets a further share of joyous audience reaction in a bonus surprise scene prior to the interval which honours another Blackadder legend!

Amanda Ataou gives a charming portrayal of Bob, the girl masquerading as a boy to do her bit on the frontline. I particularly enjoyed Miss Ataou’s turn as music-hall leading lady of which she had the audience readily singing along with claps and cheers!

Special mention must also go to Georgia Chapman, Georgia Leaf and Alexandra Williams who provide an overall polish to the production as tightly choreographed Tommie’s and dancers. Led by Toby Harris as Corporal Jones, they also double up as a personalised firing Squad who give a delightful turn of Pack Up Your Troubles at the height of the proceedings. There’s also some wonderful moments from Alex Dacey, brilliantly cast as Blackadder’s camp jailer and adding some further comic touches to the production.

Understandably, the cast do not take a curtain-call following the plays final harrowing moments. There is no stronger image to retain in our minds as our heroes go “over the top” into no-man’s land, disappearing into the rising smoke, flared by poppy-coloured spotlights of which the night air of Sophia Gardens added further to the scene’s poignancy.

Displaying the true emotive power of live theatre, this is an unmissable opening to Cardiff Open-Air Theatre Festival’s 2022 season.

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