Robin Hood & the Babes in the Wood
Gala Theatre, Durham
There was a time when pantos at the Gala were, at best, acceptable. Then Simon Stallworthy took over as the venue's director and, instead of buying in the show, wrote and directed it himself, and suddenly the theatre had a pantomine which could stand alongside all the others in the region.
Stallworthy has since moved on but has continued to write and, up until this year, direct. Now the direction of Stallworthy's script is in the hands of Jackie Fielding—and they are good hands.
We are in a little village in Sherwood Forest and on the back wall of the set there is a little sign which welcomes us—"Welcome," it says, "to Hamalot"—and that sets the tone of what is to come, for this is a traditional panto with the traditional larger than life characters which gives the performers the chance to ham it up and the audience to lap it up!
And so they did, both performers and audience.
We have a male principal boy (Gareth Leighton as Robin Hood) but that's not such a departure from tradition; after all, musical comedy stars were cast in the role in the 1920s and, since Norman Wisdom played Dick Whittington in 1956, followed in the sixties by a variety of men such as Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele, we have become very used to the male principal boy.
Like all principal boys, Leighton is brave and good and, of course, after overcoming all the obstacles in his way, gets the girl, Emma Devlin as Maid Marion, who is sweet and beautiful but also, as has become more common in the last decade or so, quite feisty.
Of course the three characters which hold a panto together are the Dame, the Comic and the Villain and Robin Hood is blessed with three fine examples. Alan French's Nurse Nellie is as loud and brash as you would expect but it did seem a bit odd that the only male she had to flirt with was Marcus Houden's Friar Tuck (and what a fine singing voice he has!).
The Comic is Paul Hartley (playing Will Scarlett) who has been in every Gala panto, beginning with small roles and now well established as a very funny comedian who has an instant rapport with both the kids and the adults in the audience.
The Villain is Neil Armstrong (in his sixth year in the role at the Gala) as the Sheriff of Nottingham. He too has a great rapport with the audience; they love to hate him but he manages this without frightening the younger children, something he achieves by (very insulting) comic banter with them right from the off.
He has two incompetent henchmen, Stink (David Tarkenter) and Stench (Martyn Dempsey), who provide much of the slapstick in a show which is full of comedy.
The principals are supported by four professional dancers and youngsters (including boys, and that is unusual) from the Gala Theatre Stage School who are all very impressive.
All the ingredients are there: the take-off scene, water being sprayed all over the audience and a rather different kitchen slosh scene in which the icing never made it onto the cake but ended up on Will Scarlett, Stink and Stench, and if some drifted towards the audience...
Robin Hood & the Babes in the Wood is my first panto of the 2013 season and sets a high standard for the rest to live up to.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan