Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
One of the first Christmas shows to open—it beat the season's first panto at Oldham Coliseum by one day—is the Octagon's brand new take on the Robin Hood legend, one of two hitting the north west this Christmas, directed by the Octagon's associate director Elizabeth Newman.
Morgan Lloyd Malcoln's script hits all of the famous points that most people remember from previous stage and screen versions, including the fight with Little John before he joins with Robin, the Sheriff's trap for Robin at the archery contest, Maid Marian turning from the aristocracy to help the poor and the triumphant entrance of King Richard to save the day (even though in real life he spent as little time in England as he possibly could).
Around this, Malcolm places a frame of a modern-day family in Sherwood Forest, whose three kids run off to have an adventure in order to escape their dad's boring stories, when suddenly they find themselves whisked back 800 years to the time of Robin Hood. This common technique can work, but here it serves little purpose as a frame other than to put across a moral that stories about the past don't have to be boring, and they don't actually contribute in any significant way to the historical tale.
The script has plenty of moments of serious drama and some elements that border on panto, including a pantomime villain in the Sheriff and some audience participation in the form of a noise the audience has to make to help frighten away the baddies. Oh, and the audience gets sprayed with water a bit. Barbara Hockaday's music fits in well with the style of the show with a folky, protest song feel, rather like a Kneehigh production, although none of it is exactly joyful.
The production uses the whole theatre, with a lovely design of wood, stone and foliage on stage and surrounding the in-the-round auditorium from designer Amanda Stoodley that strikes you immediately as you come through the door, lit beautifully by Ciaran Bagnall. Newman's direction also utilises the whole room with lots of entrances through the audience, giving a very effective immersive feel to the production.
The proper sword and staff fights from fight director Terry King are very excitingly choreographed and executed, but the smaller bits of rough and tumble are a little half-hearted, and the rescue of Robin is very disappointing. The arrow firing tricks nearly work...
Marc Small returns to the Octagon in the title role, which he plays as a bit arrogant, a bit spoilt and a bit heroic, which works well, adding some humour to the role. Opposite him, Krupa Pattani's Maid Marian is feisty to the point of being permanently angry, often more angry and demonstrative than the Sheriff, who is played with relish by Christopher Villiers.
There is a lovely performance by Jamie Baughan as Little John and the modern-day father with some nice comic touches from Clara Darcy as the Sheriff's sister and ineffective conjurer Nell, plus Barbara Hockaday changes the sex of one of the Merry Men as Willow Scarlett and Chris Chamberlain is a drunken Friar Tuck and a commanding King Richard. The small group of young actors is used well to fill other roles, and there are some nice performances from them.
After the committee-devised Christmas productions of the last couple of years, neither of which really hung together satisfactorily, the Octagon has gone back to a single writer adapting a well-known story. The result is a much more coherent script and, overall, a pretty decent festive show, despite a few rough edges.
Reviewer: David Chadderton