THEATRE REVIEW: Robin Hood, Theatre Royal Stratford East

running until 23 January

Alex Chang, Oliver Wellingtona and Geraint Rhys Edwards as the Merry Men (c) Robert Day
Alex Chang, Oliver Wellingtona and Geraint Rhys Edwards as the Merry Men (c) Robert Day

It would be nigh on impossible to count the number of pantos in London, with this great British tradition popping up in the biggest and smallest venues across the capital, from star-studded extravaganzas to alternative, boutique shows. The Theatre Royal Stratford East has a strong reputation for pantomimes that provide fun for all the family; however, this year’s offering – an eccentric take on the legend of Robin Hood – flounders and fails to excite with its story-telling or its humour.

Writers Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman, together with director Kerry Michael, were the first creative team to receive an Olivier Award nomination for panto with their 2007 production of Cinderella. Yet this year’s show suffers from serious lack of inspiration and is a confused tangle of strange plot tangents. The key elements of the legend are skimmed over, giving room to increasingly odd off-shoots: when a worm who appears to be dressed in a sleeping bag pops up to help our hero and a tap-dancing king escape prison, things have truly taken a leap into the ridiculous.

The show is not lacking in originality, it has to be said. There is a well-received 21st century, feminist twist on the tale, with Robin flailing when it comes to impressing the opposite sex, and Marian not only beating him in the archery contest, but also rejecting a romantic ending in favour of becoming a kick-ass heroine in her own right. Also bringing a modern edge to the tale are the Merry Men, whose hoodies and kneepads, and popping and locking moves, bring the medieval legend bang up to date. Geraint Rhys Edwards (Tuck) and Ashley Joseph (Titch) both put in strong performances, making their characters particularly likeable and engaging, but they are criminally underused in favour of other, weaker cast members.

Derek Elroy as Nurse (c) Robert Day
Derek Elroy as Nurse (c) Robert Day

Michael Bertenshaw’s simpering King John misfires when it comes to audience interaction, protracting his patter without raising any laughs, making his attempted rapport awkward and disrupting the flow of his scenes. Despite his attempts to camp it up, the energy noticeably drops when he takes to the stage alone. As the Sheriff, Richard Sumitro is similarly unremarkable, struggling with a script that gives him little to build on. Yet amongst all this comes Derek Elroy as Nurse, in the traditional role of the panto dame. Elroy brings everything that this panto is lacking: energy, hilarity, perfect coming timing and a wonderful sense of silliness combined with wit. With outrageous costumes and even more outrageous innuendo, his Nurse nails the audience interaction and brims over with warmth and entertainment.

The songs are serviceable rather than memorable, but musical director Robert Hyman leads a very talented orchestra who produce a bright and bouncy score, even when the cast is far from it. You cannot go to a panto without fully committing to a night of fun and hilarity, and I was very keen to get in touch with my inner child to relish in this great tradition; however, this production is jumbled and disappointing, leaving me feeling rather flat and ‘Bah Humbug-ish’ instead.

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