I tried to explain panto to an Italian friend the other day. Her polite, bemused expression said, “Yeah, no idea. I’ll just keep smiling until you stop talking,” Men dressed as women, women as men, two people disguised as a cow, double meanings and audience participation… “Well, it’s just Commedia dell’arte, innit?” I should have said.
The thing is that contemporary sleb-free London pantos further subvert the genre so that even the most sober, intelligent adult can be bamboozled by the shenanigans on stage. Trish Cooke’s witty, warm, Robin Hood is such fun that it really doesn’t matter if you understand what’s going on.
The band of Merrie Men are now more Boyband, stoking up then maintaining the energy levels throughout; at least for the screaming pre-teens who seem to love every minute. Maid Marion is a feminist, angry with her restrictive life. Imaginative creations such as a giant worm and The“Squasher” take us miles away from Errol Flynn territory.
The standard themes still exist in Strattyham (“StratEastHam”, geddit?); in panto good will always triumph over evil, people will constantly break into song, plenty of the jokes will be filthy and at some point some sweets will be lobbed at the audience.
Some of the performers just outshone the other actors, either through talent, experience or, for me, because they’d created a really clear, strong, believable character and then completely committed to it. Derek Elroy’s nurse perfectly balanced femininity, sexiness and filth (there were brilliantly startled intakes of breath around me when she talked of “leaving her back passage open”); Ashley Campbell was enjoyably watchable with his posh, slightly camp, laid-back, tap-dancing King Richard; Rebecca Deren made a funny and enjoyable Herman; Ashley Joseph’s Titch impressed with his dancing chops and Geraint Rhys Edwards gets the prize for most varied skill-set, goofing around as Tuck, valiantly fighting the urge to corpse as a worm (trapped in some sort of giant duvet – possibly one of the most surreal and funniest moments of the night) and then whipping out a trumpet in the finale. (Not a euphemism, honest: the panto – speak has got to me).
Pantos I saw as a child just signalled a set change with a selection of different backdrops. Stratford East’s scenery is 3-D. A fully opening drawbridge and stairs cleverly enlarge a small stage. Animated visuals and the large dragon puppet were beautiful. It was great to read in the programme about how much work and thought had gone into the costumes; even the recent Alexander McQueen exhibition was an influence. I particularly loved the metallic gauntlets that one of the jousters wore.
Robert Hyman’s music steers well clear of rehashed pop tunes with a great variety of original songs that include ballads, calypso, even ska and a very hummable finale number.
I was left a little cold by last year’s performance. If Stratford East can maintain this year’s energy, wit, creativity and originality, they’ll easily have one of London’s best pantos for some time to come.
Reviewed by Alison Bray
Photo: Robert Day
Robin Hood is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23 January 2016