Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates

Eric Potts
First Family Entertainment
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent
(2010)

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates production photo

After five years at the helm of the Stoke pantomime, Jonathan Wilkes has become not only a local legend, but an institution. From Aladdin to Dick Whittington and Billy Goose to Buttons, he's played them all and this year gets his hands on Robinson Crusoe.

Take Defoe's novel, shred it, mince with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, flavour with tones of Treasure Island, season with a sprinkling of Dick Whittington and you almost come up with First Family Entertainment's brand new addition to their portfolio of titles. Intriguingly, the suffix 'and the Caribbean Pirates' is only two years old and mirrors Qdos' 2008 coinage of the title word-for-word. Incidentally, another Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates can also be seen this year, not in the UK, but in South Africa as Janice Honeyman stages the title at the Joburg Theatre, complete with Qdos sets and costumes. With Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean demonstrating a wave of influence over the genre, and with Sky 1 HD commissioning a new series of Sinbad the Sailor, how long will it be before the tale of Sinbad also graces the pantomime stage once more?

It is highly commendable that the Regent has become the incubator for 'new' First Family Entertainment titles in the last couple of years, but after 2009's Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe seems a misjudged choice as the two pantomime narratives are almost identical and indeed some overheard audience members in the interval appeared to be suffering from clear symptoms of déjà vu.

As usual, Wilkes plays the lead and his mix of hero and comic is a hit with the Stoke-on-Trent audience. Extremely charismatic, Wilkes effortlessly builds rapport with his fellow "ducks", much helped by the fact that he too is one of the flock and so a shared community is easily established.

With Wilkes at the helm of the show, Robinson Crusoe is a clear example of how commercial pantomime does not have to suffer from the McTheatre effect. Distinct localisation is evident and this really helps build a sense of ownership over the cultural product.

Steven Serlin is back as the Villain, Captain Cutlass, as are some members of the ensemble as his not-so-Caribbean pirates and this sense of family is further enforced by Wilkes' wife, Nikki Wilkes, being the show's choreographer.

Political correctness rules out Man Friday's involvement in the panto fun and thankfully those days of blacking up are long gone. But this Robinson Crusoe does still possess an island of natives in grass skirts, who gyrate as if doing the haka to the Indian tones of 'Jai Ho'. Although very different to the Robinson Crusoe of 1893 in which Ada Blanche used a machine gun to kill the island's cannibals, it is difficult to ignore the piece's colonialist and Orientalist undertones, which is what makes the title problematic for post-millennial presentation.

As Polly Perkins, Jennifer Ellison is a refreshingly savvy Principal Girl; attractive and adventurous. Wilkes seems to enjoy his role as her lover immensely and sometimes it is difficult to detect where Robinson ends and he begins. Wilkes is a natural charmer and at one point in the show even asks Ellison to turn around so he can see her bum. As the portrayal of women in pantomime takes a step forward, Wilkes takes a cheeky step back for men.

Sam Bloor's performance as Robin the Cabin Boy proves that in the future he'll be gracing not only the Stokey stage, but that of the West End as well, and as locally inspired Hanley and Tunstall, David McDuff and Zoltan Lang provide some great acrobatic humour in their portrayal of Robinson's crew. As Robinson's silly sidekicks, McDuff and Zoltan have shades of Tuck and Roll the circus woodlice in Disney's A Bug's Life about them and are a welcome addition to an already plentiful cast of talent.

The set sparkles and the costumes, also designed by Terry Parsons, are lush and abundant in nature; however it is rather a shame that there are no steps to walk down for the show's Walkdown, leaving an almost bare stage for the most extravagant moment of the evening: a wedding.

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates is most definitely a swashbuckling adventure, but with next year's show announced as Aladdin and presumably starring Wilkes, questions need to be asked. Having already appeared in the titular role in 2006, just how different will the production be? And why have First Family Entertainment not produced Jack and the Beanstalk for the last four years? Surely Jack would be the perfect part for Wilkes and would mean that he wouldn't have to reprise a role for another year? And what about Sleeping Beauty, let alone Peter Pan, which was initially announced as this year's pantomime? As First Family Entertainment increase their portfolio to eight titles, it is a shame that the Stoke-on-Trent audience will have to wait a little longer before they can tick them all off their Christmas pantomime wish list.

Playing until 9th January 2011

Reviewer: Simon Sladen