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Blondel's New Crusade Comes To An End

December 30
8:15 PM 2006

The revival of the Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver musical "Blondel" ends its run at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington on Sunday, December 31. The original production, starring Paul Nicholas and Sharon Lee Hill, opened in the West End in November 1983 and ran for just under two years. The revival, with an excellent cast led by ex-soap star from Hollyoaks, Chris Grierson and feisty How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria semi-finalist, Abi Finlay, has enchanted London fringe theatre audiences for just six weeks.

Tim Rice first hit upon the idea for a twelfth century musical romp while still working with Andrew Lloyd Webber, when the project was originally entitled "Come Back Richard, Your Country Needs You". When Messrs. Rice and Lloyd Webber parted their ways, the project was shelved until Rice met Stephen Oliver, the prestigious composer of incidental music for 15 productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as over 40 operas, including The Duchess of Malfi and Timon of Athens. Rice and Oliver began working on a musical centering around King Richard the Lionheart and then shifted focus to the character of the minstrel, Blondel, who Rice re-invented as a wannabe songwriter with dreams of pop-stardom, accompanied by a female vocal trio called the Blondettes.

Rice decided to make some changes to the libretto for this revival, sharpening up the script and making some of the jokes more relevant to a twenty first century audience. It deals with a political ruler who embarks upon a crusade in the middle east with no exit-strategy, assassination attempts by a hit-man hired by Prince John as he vies to steal the throne from his brother and a heroine who is an activist for women's rights. As the Monks, who serve as a medieval chanting "Greek" chorus of observers throughout the play, quip: "Who said this piece wasn't educational?" At the centre of it all are some of Tim Rice's best ever lyrics and a delighful score by Oliver (who sadly died of AIDS in 1992), including some great ballads, such as "Running Back For More" and "The Least Of My Troubles".

The new production, directed by Patrick Wilde and produced by Pete Shaw, proves that the show still has plenty of life left in it. Perhaps the show would suffer from a West End transfer as much of its strength lies in its intimate feel but there are some far less witty, less tuneful and less worthy productions currently filling West End houses. Tim Rice has commented that he hopes the revised show will find a new life amongst schools and amateur companies. It deserves more than just that.

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