Robin Hood at West Walls Theatre
Written and Directed by James Sparks
As the curtains closed on the Green Room's annual pantomime production the overwhelming thought running through my mind was of helping students prepare for their exams.
Bare with me, I'm going somewhere with this.
In the subjects where an essay length answer was required the paper would invariably be split into multiple questions with equal marks available for each answer; 30 points for part A, 30 for part B, etc. I would go to great lengths to drill into any and all that would listen to 'Read the whole test and give yourself time to answer every question'. After all, you could give the most analytically sound, insightful and well considered answer for part A, but if you've then only left yourself time to write a couple of sentences for part B and then little more than a few words for part C, you're going to struggle to achieve a passing grade no matter how perfect your initial answer may have been.
Robin Hood did some things very well indeed. I think it may be the most gag stuffed pantomime I have ever seen. Certainly there wasn't a single minute went by which didn't feature at least one pun, one-liner or outright joke and, as such, you'd be hard pressed not to find yourself laughing regularly. 30/30 in that regard. Equally, the production heralded the much atnicipated return of the 'outside broadcast.' A filmed excerpt featuring the heroes running around Carlisle landmarks, packed with effective slapstick chuckles.
But the none stop barrage of humour came at a cost, leaving almost no room left for musical numbers. Besides the obligatory opening and closing of the show routines, there was a sum total of one tune for the cast to sing and dance along to. This would have been hugely disappointing on its own, but what really rubbed salt into the wound is that the 'If I were not upon the stage' music hall routine, featuring the majority of the characters lamenting what their lives would be were they not engaged in the show with brilliantly synchronised actions, was so good and undeniably a highlight of the show! Gags are all well and good, and quite rightly form the lifeblood of any pantomime. But a show can't survive on wit alone. The musical numbers exist to break up the pace, to give the audience a rest from verbal cleverness and foolery. A stopgap to enjoy some visual stimulus instead of being overwhelmed by an unrelenting barrage of jokes. And it's not just for the audiences benefit - the cast themselves seemed filled with a renewed sense of energy during the song, relishing the opportunity to deliver something other than dialogue.
The cast were strong throughout, helped by a core of stalwart members well seasoned in the rigours of pantomime performance. Leading the charge was James Sparks who, as you'd expect, gave a commanding performance as Lord Percy, father of Maid Marion - basically the character played by Warren Clarke in Blackadder the Third, right down to the 'Never has love crossed such boundaries of class' routine. Seb Coombe made for a delightfully villainous if unusually nasally Sheriff of Nottingham, ably backed by the seemingly rubber faced Sarah Coyle as nice-but-dim Deputy Dawn. Daniel Spencer succeeded in making the thoroughly unlikeable variation of the titular hero suitably endearing while 'Merry Man' Lisa Moffat all but stole the show with her deranged but hilarious performance of Wilma [sic] Scarlett. Special mention must also be given to newcomer Joe Desborough, whose unexpectedly Northern Irish take on Friar Tuck managed to make the most of a slim part.
Something which has only occurred to me as I sit thinking back - usually a sure-fire sign that I'm either talking nonsense or have just finished a bottle, often both, and should likely be ignored- is that none of the characters were particularly likable, which strikes me as unusual in pantomime. By all means characters should have depth and as anyone who has seen my dye-less locks recently will know I'm all for shades of grey, but I can't think of another show I've seen where there isn't at least one character that you want to root for. The usual suspect here would have been Robin, but in this instance he's presented as a self centred know it all. An interesting twist and credit where it's due for telling a non-traditional variation of the story. But the issue here is that no other character particularly takes up the mantle of being the one you 'want to win'. The nearest is probably Marian herself (Emma Lowry), but she is given so little to do it's difficult to form a bond or see things from her point of view.
The set is particularly worthy of special praise as in addition to the traditional curtain affair the wings were painted with resplendent woodland scenes, in turn giving rise to two of my favourite gags from the show; a wanted poster quite literally drawing Robin in an unflattering light and a naughty squirrel with suitably large accompanying nuts.
Robin Hood is doubtless a worthy addition to the Green Room's roster of pantomime and is best viewed as a brave if not entirely successful attempt to try something different with the format. I can only applaud its efforts in both trying and succeeding to generate laughs, but hope next year a slightly more balanced approach is taken to aim for full marks across the board.