Blondel, Union Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The knowledge that Blondel was Tim Rice’s first musical after his split with Andrew Lloyd Webber adds an extra piquancy to some of its knowing lines. Who needs lyrics, muses the show’s eponymous troubadour Blondel, when it’s the music that really makes people take notice?

In this comic rock take on King Richard I’s Crusades, it is a rather disingenuous question. For while Stephen Oliver’s music may contain none of the killer melodies that dominated Rice’s collaboration with Lloyd Webber, it does help to show off Rice’s penchant for humour.

In his previous works, such frivolities would have been out of place if used too extensively – Jesus Christ Superstar with more than one ‘King Herod’s Song’ just does not bear thinking about.

Here, though, the book (co-written by Rice and Tom Williams) takes the legend of the troubadour, who was reputed to have rescued King Richard after his capture while returning from the Crusade, and turns it into a knockabout farce.

Neil Moors’ Richard is a denim-clad, charismatic leader whose exploits abroad are spurred on by a craving for adoration, at the expense of the serfs he leaves behind.

He is the polar opposite of his unctuous, serpentine brother John, whose reign of terror as Regent is far worse than his brother’s mere negligence.

James Thackeray crafts a fine line in villainy in the role, even as the greater villain, as fought by Blondel’s fiery girlfriend Fiona (Jessie May), is inequality and indifference.

The themes of the musical, which first graced London stages in 1983 with a revamped production in 2006, still feel acutely relevant today.

Lines about leaders embarking upon misadventures in the Middle East to distract from problems at home, and of the rich exploiting the poor, never seem to age. Even Richard’s imprisonment by, and attempted escape from, Austrian Duke Leopold elicits light bulbs of recognition as the band of plucky Brits attempt to extricate themselves from Europe.

There is much to enjoy here – most notably Michael Burgen’s assassin, hired by John to prevent the King from ever returning to England and who forms an unlikely, but highly engaging, double act with Connor Arnold’s Blondel as they traverse Europe.

But despite Arnold’s best efforts, the central character of Blondel remains the show’s weakest link. Williams and Rice seem to like spending more time with the show’s numerous minor characters. And with the central story being ultimately straightforward, having swathes of exposition via a group of monks singing barbershop is unnecessary, no matter how pleasantly and humorously delivered.

Blondel’s name may not have lived on in history the same way as his contemporary Robin Hood. The same fate, of knowledge but not adulation, befell this musical. And, while this brief sojourn into the sunlight amuses, one is left feeling that Blondel shall, after the final curtain, fade once more.

But in the meantime, and despite the musical’s inherent flaws, director Sasha Regan, her choreographer Chris Whittaker and musical director Simon Holt have cajoled the work into a couple of hours of entertaining fun.