Live and in person, before our very eyes - Captain Blackadder, Private Baldrick, Lieut George, Captain Darling, General Melchett and Lord Flashheart.
Stage versions of TV shows are fairly rare and don’t always work. When the Thespians had a go at Last of the Summer Wine, the play turned out to be a bit of a turkey. But Blackadder Goes Forth, the World War One incarnation of Rowan Atkinson’s self-serving cynic - scripted by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton - does seem tailor-made for adaptation. It has a small range of static settings (mostly a trench somewhere in Flanders) and almost all of the humour is dialogue-driven.
It was therefore enterprising and ingenious of the Thespians’ Alistair Cheetham to produce a cogent and amusing stage play from the final and probably the best Blackadder series. It works pretty well and the famous conclusion packs its full emotional punch. In fact, Cheetham comes up with a rather clever coup de theatre of his own at the very, very end of the production.
The episodes incorporated into the stage play include Blackadder’s court martial for shooting Gen Melchett’s pigeon; his date with a wisecracking firing squad; his encounter with the Red Baron and rescue by Lord Flashheart; and his futile attempt to avoid the Big Push by feigning madness.
There are occasional attempts to emulate TV’s ability to cut between scenes and they do not work as tightly as they could, but generally this is a good adaptation. It is confronted, of course, with the issue of how far the actors should go in attempting to impersonate the ultra-familiar original performances.
As Edmund Blackadder himself, Simon Reece does not attempt a full-on Rowan Atkinson impression, and his performance is the better for it. But he has all the fatalistic world-weariness of the original and manages to make a selfish, unpleasant man into a strangely sympathetic character, the sole voice of sanity in the madhouse.
Joe Geddes does a pretty good, occasionally poignant Baldrick and Matthew Fairhead channels Stephen Fry very well as the barking mad General Melchett. Adam Hartley is quietly effective as the ultimately rather desolate character of Captain Darling and as Lord Flashheart, Paul Zarins goes way over the top, as he is required to do.
Particularly enjoyable was Alex Watkins as Lieut George, the dense, patriotic and completely likeable public school chump. He put his own stamp on this role (Hugh Laurie in the original) and made him a funny but powerful and rather sad symbol of some of the delusions that fuelled the slaughter of World War One.
Since making its debut in 1989, Blackadder Goes Forth has become rather a controversial element in the historiography of the 1914-18 conflict, with critics arguing that it pushes a simplistic post-1960s interpretation of the conflict.
Maybe it does, but the cultural status of the series means that it thoroughly warrants this highly creditable attempt at a stage adaptation, although it would be fascinating to hear the reactions of someone completely unfamiliar with the TV original. The adapter, Alistair Cheetham, also directs and the performance, which makes ingenious use of the main body of the LBT, continues until Saturday, when there is also a matinee.