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Theatre Review: Robin Hood @ Theatre Royal Stratford East

This review was originally written for A Younger Theatre

About a third of the way through the second half of Robin Hood, Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime, the excitable, chair-climbing child sitting next to me accidentally squirts glow stick fluid into her eye and has to be escorted from the auditorium. I am jealous; I wish I had come up with such a cunning plan to escape this theatrical torment.

It is not that Robin Hood lacks enthusiasm – on the contrary, heaps of brio abound – it is just that it is so overstuffed with half-thought ideas and bizarre, unfinished, inexplicable plot strands that were Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman not credited as writers in the programme, I would have assumed that the entire thing was improvised.

Oliver Wellington is a street-smart Robin. Michael Bertenshaw is his nemesis, the dastardly Prince John who, in the absence of King Richard, seeks to claim the throne and marry Maid Marion himself (Nadia Albina). It is a strong, fairly conventional structure, but when the narrative dives down some unexpected rabbit holes, it becomes a chaotic mess of half-baked cameo characters and tenuously linked sub-plots. A sequence with a worm (Geraint Rhys Edwards) helping Robin to escape Prince John by digging an insect-infested tunnel feels particularly desperate.

The best thing that can be said about Kelly Michael’s production is that its plot, full of holes though it is, actually does try to incorporate some enlightened twenty first century themes. Albina’s Maid Marion is no longer a soppy princess in a dress, but a suppressed super-woman, who fires her bow with just as much accuracy as any of the male characters. In contrast, Wellington’s Robin, although a good egg at heart, is a bit of an unwitting misogynist. There is no love story here and the show ends on a decidedly unapologetic note of personal liberation. But one imagines all this might pass over the head of a six-year old.

Derek Elroy deserves credit for the gusto of his Dame, but on the whole the unimpressive cast seem to spend great energy without really getting anywhere. Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramani have provided a stylish, colourful design and Hyman’s accompanying musical numbers are somewhat catchy, but Michael’s production still flounders. There are weak running gags, poorly choreographed slapstick sequences and classic panto routines, trotted out without a semblance of wit or ingenuity.

Pantomimes are an enduring fixture of the British theatrical calendar for good reason – when done well, they are sublimely enjoyable like no other production can be. A good panto should entertain children and adults alike, it should sparkle with wit and imagination, and it should brim with contemporary satirical asides. Robin Hood does none of this. Despite its enlightened narrative choices, it remains a tedious, uninspiring show. If you are going to see a panto this Christmas, don’t make it this one.

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