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In 2012, when Anthony Spargo played the Sheriff of Nottingham in Greenwich Theatre’s pantomime Robin Hood, little did he know that ten years later, not only would he revisit the role, but he would also be writing the institution that is the Greenwich Pantomime.
With regular Dame, director and writer Andrew Pollard enjoying pastures new, Spargo delivers a pantomime that provides a sense of familiarity and freshness. Resident musical director ‘Uncle’ Steve Markwick is still very much an integral part of proceedings, with his band back on stage as per last year’s The Queen of Hearts. Returning for his fourth Greenwich panto, Martin Johnson’s lovable Friar Tuck is also back and along with Spargo’s own industry leading Villain—part Mick Jagger, part Mr Bean, part Kenneth Williams—the show is as solid as ever.
No longer does a revolve introduce scene after scene, with new designer Judith Croft’s static and stationary set offering up a woodland glade that becomes part and parcel of every scene. The usual glitter extravaganza of Cleo Pettitt has given way to muted and mottled greens which does leave the show lacking in festive sparkle.
As ever, Greenwich has assembled the finest of casts, but disappointingly the usual diversity it champions is completely absent from the stage. In the title role, David Breeds’s Robin is a likeable hero, daring and dashing with a pinch of daft, who is equally at home conversing with the audience, battling with the Sheriff or belting out a musical number with his exquisite vocals.
In Spargo’s Robin Hood, the audience first meet Marion on her own quest to stick it to the Sheriff. A bold, independent woman, Amy Bastani’s Principal Girl is feisty and fearless, but comes across a little cold at times. Subtle tweaks to the writing and Matt Aston’s direction could really help the audience warm to the character. Combined with new Dame on the block Phil Sealey as Marion’s ward Little Joan, the two work well together with Sealey’s comedic interplay feeling at home on the Greenwich stage in an approach that combines Les Dawson's gurning with Christopher Biggins's campery.
Robin Hood is a somewhat challenging narrative. Without the Babes in the Wood component, where might a writer take the story? Spargo decides to move the all-important archery contest to the end of act one, favouring to focus on quest in act two as the Merry Men and Women seek to save a kidnapped Friar Tuck in a tale of rescue and retribution.
Whilst the story itself might not offer much in the way of twists and turns, Robin Hood is certainly packed with comic business, from a massage sequence with outrageously limber legs to a confectionary inspired pun run, Ronnie Barkeresque pismronunciation patter, a very truthful lie detector and some cheeky squirrels who pop up throughout.
Musical medleys ranging from Queen to Lizzo provide an upbeat and uplifting soundtrack to a show that oscillates between shades of excellence and standard panto fare. The choice of a canine companion for the Sheriff in Louise Cielecki’s magnificent Mutley works well, but her musical number "Mr Cellophane" seems somewhat misplaced, bereft of any razzle dazzle and dancers.
Similarly, the introduction of a dragon’s egg in act two becomes another sudden plot point in a show that has sparks of inspiration dotted throughout, some more successful than others. For example, act one’s archery contest, in which the Sheriff is adamant that Marian is Robin in disguise, offered some wonderful potential to play with anticipated narratives and challenge gender constructs, but was quickly glossed over.
A transition year is always challenging after key practitioners leave a venue, particularly Pollard who built the Greenwich pantomime into one of the best in the business over his 15 year tenure. Spargo has inherited this mantel and fares well in his inaugural season. Perhaps a more meaty narrative will give him the opportunity to really sink his teeth into the genre next year?
Reviewer: Simon Sladen