Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
As has often been the case in the past, Oldham Coliseum kicks off the UK's panto season—and puts on sale tickets for next year's Sleeping Beauty—but sadly, this follows closely on the announcement that this historic local venue is to lose its Arts Council funding.
This is referred to in perhaps the best gag of the show (possibly an ad lib?) when Nathan Morris as dumb villain sidekick Failsworth (a great name, and by far the best comic performance) tells Liz Carney's Sheriff that they have run out of money due to Arts Council cuts, then says mechanically to the audience, "but we fully respect their decision."
While the show is Robin Hood on the posters and programme, the front cloth calls it Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood, and the script is a hotchpotch combination of both stories, where the Sheriff wants to hang Robin Hood—another solid Principal Boy performance from multi-talented Shorelle Hepkin—and dispose of two children, the 'Babes', in order to inherit their cash. There isn't a great deal of logic or progression to the plot, but it provides just enough of a framework to hold together the panto set pieces.
Designer Celia Perkins once again produces the goods with scenery that looks straight out of a modern children's illustrated book, with lots of hidden gags, better than most of those in the script, and some appropriately unwieldy and over-the-top dame costumes. The bedroom set is a wonderful playground of hidden traps and ghostly moving furniture, but, like most of the set pieces in the show, the scene that uses it is repetitive without any sense of a build-up or a big enough pay-off ending.
The script is full of local references, which always go down well with audiences, and some mild satire targeting members of government, current and recently ditched, but most of the gags are older than me, and many didn't land well at this first-night performance due to too-rapid delivery through muddy-sounding mics—this will no doubt improve as they settle in during the run. While innuendo is commonly used in panto—'something for the adults'—there is a lot here that tends more towards the crude than the merely suggestive without an alternative gag for the kids alongside it.
Alongside Oldham panto stalwarts Carney and Hepkin, recent Arden graduate Sarah Pearson is Maid Marian, Ian Crowe works the audience well as secondary villain Guy of Gisbourne and Charlie Ryan dons the complex Dame costumes of Nurse Nellie. Sophie Ellicott has great stage presence as Ellen A Dale and a couple of other parts, uncredited in the programme, including the Fairy of the Woods, while William Travis's Friar Tuck fulfils the Comic role by calling to the audience each time he enters—rather brave to ask the audience to respond with a line that rhymes with his name. I don't know who was in the bear costume for the "behind you..." scene, but they gave a great performance, with even a bit of moonwalking.
The show concludes with a song sheet number with kids from the audience up on stage to help Tuck and Nellie. I saw kids in the audience singing along with "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." (as always, Dave Bintley doing a great job with a variety of musical styles on keyboards with Paul Allen on drums and Nathan Welch on bass) with great joy and enthusiasm on press night, and some of the adults were going for it as well, which is what panto is all about.
But while audiences out for a great time at Christmas will have an enjoyable night, the gags and the comic routines could be much funnier and the story more interesting to follow. If the production as a whole echoed the set in having a fresh, modern appearance while respecting the traditions of panto (rather than introducing them wearily as "you know what always happens here"), it could achieve something truly special.
Reviewer: David Chadderton