I feel I should say this before I go any further: I really am not a fan of pantomime.
So why did I choose to go & review one this year? Good question (and no, that’s not a cue for audience participation). I guess curiosity was a major factor. I went to one or two professional pantomimes when I was a child and I don’t really recall anything that happened – all I do remember is going with my family to meet Jeffrey Holland afterwards and trying on one of his wigs. That was a lot of fun; he said I was bubbly! My main pantomime viewing has been down the village hall, watching people I know making idiots of themselves, which is always a good laugh but even that hasn’t been in my diary for a few years now. So when the invite to Theatre Royal Stratford East for the press night of Robin Hood came through from Theatre Bloggers, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what I was missing.
All the elements of the traditional Robin Hood story are there: the Merry Men, wicked Prince John & the Sheriff, Maid Marion, good King Richard and an archery tournament. Bizarrely there is also a dragon – and instead of being set in Nottingham, the events take place in StratEastHam (though it sounded like ‘Strattyham’ during the show).
In true panto style, many of the sets & props are not particularly realistic, though one moment that this is used to good comic effect comes in the second act during a daring dragon-based escape… The design style is simple, yet bold & striking – and shows a clear divide between ‘teams’. Green for Robin Hood & the Merry Men, red for Prince John, the Sheriff & Herman (his henchman).
One of the more impressive things about this production is the fact that it has an almost entirely original score. Most pantomimes will make do with covering or parodying a variety of pop songs, but Robert Hyman has composed his own for this show. I admire the ambition shown by this, however they aren’t particularly catchy – aside from when they are repeated a few too many times for my liking.
What is interesting about the show is the modern feel that it has, most significantly the feminist message coming from the character of Marion – and the less traditional ending is definitely refreshing.
Oliver Wellington takes on the title role with gusto, and is ably supported by Ashley Joseph, Geraint Rhys Edwards & Alex Chang as his Merry Men (Titch, Tuck & Red). They have a great chemistry and do well at getting the audience interested early on. It’s a shame that the gang, Robin aside, go missing for much of the second act.
Nadia Albina does a solid job as a feisty Marion, though is quite often overshadowed (particularly early on) by Derek Elroy as the rambunctious Nurse. He is everything you expect a pantomime dame to be: camp, loud & over the top! Nurse’s presence does serve to keep the momentum going at times, although conversely the main audience participation segment does drag a little – I suppose you can’t always allow for what that will bring.
Michael Bertenshaw’s portrayal of Prince John does fall a bit flat at times. At the start the audience very enthusiastically booed & hissed, but occasionally he didn’t judge the time to carry on with his lines so some jokes were missed and there were some awkward silences. Richard Sumitro & Rebecca Derren worked well as a pair (Sheriff & Herman), though the latter seemed more confident.
My standout performance comes from Ashley Campbell as King Richard. He is portrayed as a bit of a ‘posh boy’ (understandably!), all “yah, yah” and with an air of entitlement – though still fair, and definitely one of the good guys. There is an absurdly brilliant tap dance during the second act that he excels at; it is both entertaining and skilful.
This production hasn’t convinced me to be a regular panto-goer (I could definitely have done without a paper arrow being fired at the back of my head for a start), but the reaction from the rest of the audience is what really matters.
My verdict? An energetic production with original songs & fun for all the family, but maybe goes on just a tad too long.
Robin Hood runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23 January 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.
Theatre Bloggers: Theatrebloggers.co.uk
Theatre Royal Stratford East: stratfordeast.com