Ged McKenna, new songs and additional lyrics by Francis Goodhand
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Where, in the familiar rollcall of Robin Hood characters, could there possibly be a pantomime dame? This was my one misgiving as I settled into the cosy stalls of Bury's enchanting Georgian Theatre Royal. But Ged McKenna has come up trumps in his newly-written version of the tale with the creation of Nurse Nancy, companion to Maid Marian.
And it's Nurse Nancy, played with enormously appealing energy and gusto by James Nickerson, who inevitably steals the show. From the moment she unpeels herself from a vertical bed in Marian's castle, wearing the first of an increasingly outlandish series of frocks, we know we're in good hands. Nancy soon has the entire audience 'oohing' and 'aahing' as she confesses her desperation to find a man, and plucks a chap from the front row to be her protector.
As for the 'booing' and 'hissing', Mark Stratton's Sheriff of Nottingham presides over that department with great panache. He, too, is looking for 'lurve' ,and treats us to a snatch of hip-gyrating song whenever he contemplates his own gorgeousness - which is often. When he's not scheming of evil ways to entrap Maid Marian, he's mildly mistreating his unfortunate sidekick, Guy of Gisburne (John Tearney). Gisburne doesn't say a lot, but his gait and face speak volumes, and the pair's daft antics provide some wonderful clowning.
Robin Hood is billed as a traditional family pantomime, and it doesn't disappoint. Will Hargreaves' set conjures the storybook atmosphere of forests and castles, kitchens and dungeons, battlements and haunted rooms. For a good fairy there's Willow, Spirit of the Trees, whose energetic magic helps the rather ineffectual 'goodies' to triumph over the 'baddy'. And instead of a pantomime cat or cow or horse there's a lion (what else?): King Richard, no less, magically transformed for his escape from Germany and secret return to England.
Robin (Matthew Newman) and Marian (Sarah Lindsey) both sing their sad songs when all seems lost, but we're spared the big romantic duet and the dancing girls. What we do have is a lively and thoroughly rehearsed juvenile chorus, who give an irrepressibly healthy and happy impression as assorted downtrodden serfs, starving townsfolk and Merrie Men. It would have been fun, though, to see them given their own little song and dance number.
A refreshing feature of this production is the absence of big names from the soaps. The best moments may be those featuring Nancy or the Sheriff, but the whole evening is a delight, thanks to Colin Blumenau's taut direction, which succeeds in drawing a disparate assembly of individuals into an effective ensemble.
The fact that the production is evidently well rehearsed gives piquancy to the occasional ad-libbed moments, for which the classy Dame is usually responsible. Nancy's at the centre of most of the funny business, though the Sheriff also has his moments of glory: his comic-sexy solo number is so cool, the delighted audience forgets to boo.
And we, the audience, were pretty cool, too. We shouted and sang, clapped and danced, if not like pros then certainly like enthusiastic amateurs. It takes a special production to get scores of world-weary adults on their feet pretending to pull their knickers up. Forget Return of the King: this Robin Hood's a real Christmas treat.
Oh yes it is!
Reviewer: Jill Sharp