Blondel has been a work in progress for Tim Rice for nearly 50 years and it’s almost there.
It’s back, opening on Friday at London’s Union Theatre. No disrespect to the Union, which is a marvellous fringe venue, but it’s hardly The Lyceum or Palladium. It’s bijou, snug, compact. No getting away from it. Hardly what Sir Tim is used to.
The rock musical has been revived a few times, both in the UK and America, and the song-writing legend has reworked his own material to give the show a boost but it still doesn’t work.
Blondel was hardly a failure but, judged against Rice’s back catalogue, it has been a disappointment.
Obviously the songs are great, though derivative. There are lots of witty lyrics – as you’d expect from Sir Tim – and Stephen Oliver’s music is fun.
But there are a ridiculously large number of them. Trying to squeeze 30 songs into a two-hour show is insane. It leaves almost no room for plot.
Rice’s book, written with Tom Williams, just isn’t as funny or as original as, say, Spamalot or BlackAdder, which both excel in historical, irreverent, silliness.
Blondel is tenuously based on a real life minstrel who lived during the time of King Richard and the Crusades.
Connor Arnold, as the singer, is the epitome of an out-sized cartoon hero with greased quiff, muscular frame and quizzical eyebrows permanently struggling to outact their master.
Arnold’s Blondel – occasionally called Fondle in a bid to raise a laugh (it doesn’t) – hopes to improve his situation by becoming official court minstrel.
But his plans go awry when Richard, off on his Crusades, along with Blondel’s feisty fiancee, Fiona, is kidnapped by the Duke of Austria.
Blondel, unwittingly aided by an assassin, employed by Richard’s evil brother John, sets out to free the king and his girl in his own inimitable way – playing his one big hit, I’m A Monarchist, outside every castle in Europe.
Rice has packed this musical romp with political and historic references which are clever but contrived. Some scenes try so hard that the satire is lost.
The likeable Arnold is every inch a hunky hero but the role is hardly a stretch. He strums his guitar, has perfected a look of innocent vacuity, and, more by luck than judgement, enjoys his own mini crusade through Europe.
James Thackeray’s outlandish Prince John is pure pantomime baddy. During one musical number he taps a beat out on the bottom of a well upholstered serving wench. Is that allowed in modern theatre?
The bearded Neil Moors is a hoot as the powerful and eminently tuneful King Richard and Michael Burgen gives an engaging turn as the Assassin.
But the real stars of the show are its four warbling Monks whose melodic, harmonising, voices are simply fabulous.
David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville act as the musical’s narrators and their pithy one-liners are the funniest in the whole production.
Blondel runs at The Union Theatre until July 15.
This latest revival of Tim Rice’s medieval rock musical, Blondel, tries too hard with an abundance of songs and few laughs but it’s saved by having a likeable hero.