In a boom season for musicals, it's a pleasant – and indeed Pleasance - surprise to find this 1983 collaboration between Tim Rice and the late Stephen Oliver turning up in a jaunty revival by Patrick Wilde. And while Connie Fisher carries all before her in The Sound of Music, one of the other semi-finalists in the How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? television show, Abi Finley – a little like a new Marti Webb - proves that she too has a promising future.
Finley plays Fiona, the feisty girlfriend of the minstrel Blondel, serf-ing the medieval airwaves, and by no means the weaker vassal. Blondel’s recent near-misses include “Groats from Heaven” and “Send in the Jesters”, but his task now is not just to write a chart-topping rondel (with rhymes worthy of Blondel) but also to rescue King Richard and prevent the dastardly Prince John from seizing the throne. Yes folks, the year is 1189 and we’re not even watching Spamalot. With Rice on board, serving up some fiendish lyrics and list songs, this is, anyway, much more like “Scan-A-Lot”.
The origins of the show go right back to the late 1960s, when Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber sketched out a musical successor to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat; the working title was Come Back Richard, Your Country Needs You. This showed dangerous signs of coming up to date, at least from the Biblical era to that of the Crusades. But the pull of the past was too much for the likely lads, so they plunged back into work on a double album about some bloke called Jesus Christ Superstar. The rest is hysteria.
When the Canadian impresarios, Ed and David Mirvish, acquired the Old Vic, the opening show was the Richard musical revamped by Rice with music by Stephen Oliver whose prodigious output to that date included many scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including the legendary Nicholas Nickleby.
Some of the songs are really worth hearing again – notably the rousing “I’m a Monarchist” chorus and the love song “Running Back for More”. But the plot is a non-starter and the device of a barber-shop quartet of monks only works for about ten minutes. Blondel’s backing group, the Blondettes, who look like the All Saints after a hard day’s night, have far too little to do that's memorable. But there are some toothsome musical nuggets in the supporting roles for Matt Harrop as Prince John, Napoleon Ryan as a comic Assassin and David Paul West doubling as a leather-clad regal baddie and an insufferable Robin Hood. Chris Grierson is likeable enough as the lute-strumming Blondel.
So, will Blondel go on to the West End? I doubt it somehow, but no musical fan will want to miss the chance of catching a real collector’s item, performed with rough energy on Jason Denvir’s amusingly rudimentary design of grey cardboard arches. Oh, and come back Tim: your country needs you. His lyrics are outrageously, surprisingly jejune in this post-Evita effort, but they also have a wit, sparkle and delight in word play no one has matched since.