Saturday, January 23, 2010




Pantomime season runs from December to February, which I think is one way of coping with the aftermath of Christmas when the year is still comparatively dark and wintry. As I squeezed into my seat in the upper circle last night for Robin Hood, surrounded by children, I remembered once again that a very big component of panto is children and their interaction with the characters on stage. It is very much a call-and-answer format, and in any panto you are likely to hear some variation on “Oh no, it isn’t!”/“Oh yes, it is!” and “he’s behind you!!” Particular to the Cardiff stage (at least I gather) is the actor Andy Jones playing a sort of fool character (Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk, Will Scarlett in Robin Hood) who shouts, “Oggi oggi oggi!”, to be answered by a deafening “OI OI OI!!!” from the children. Similarly, the hero is always cheered, the villain is always booed, and if it’s John Barrowman playing the lead, his appearances are always heralded by squeals of delight and wolf-whistles.

You’ve probably figured out by now that the pantomime dame is a requisite part of the action: an older man dressed in outrageous female costumes complete with obvious bra-stuffing, etc. Interestingly, in this production, this was actually worked into the plot—ie, in most pantos, I take it, the dame is just there with no explanation given as to why “she” is actually a man. Don McLean, who was playing Friar Tuck, answered an advertisement in The Sun for a housekeeper at Nottingham Castle (!). This quickly descended into farce as the Friar was forced into more and more unlikely costumes. I have to say I think Robin Hood was a bit more obviously lewd than Jack and the Beanstalk. Certainly Friar Tuck’s bouncing bosoms meant boobs were constantly the focus of jokes—there was a very naughty dialogue between Tuck and Will via mobile phone—and there was a gaseous baby whose sole purpose seemed to be fart jokes, not to mention the dog puppet that squirted water from its rear end onto the audience. High brow, this is not.

The regional jibes were in full swing last night—the Sheriff’s men shopped at TK Maxx, Merthyr was a source of “monster speech”—though a masterstroke was Tuck singing “Chicken Korma” to the tune of “Nessun Dorma.” “You’re too good-looking to be in Torchwood,” was said from Tuck to Will, and when Robin made a joke about Susan Boyle, Tuck responded, “You only made that joke because her album is selling better than yours.” Robin said he could always hitch a ride with a Time Lord. “Who?” “Exactly.”

Of spectacle there was much. Sword fights, staff fights, big dance numbers, and a witch thrown in for good measure rounded out the first act; the second saw “Nottingham Fair,” complete with drum majorettes, a baby elephant, and a clown on stilts! Maid Marian disappeared on stage, Robin escaped death from dozens of metal spikes, and there was a fight between a Sea Devil/Godzilla and King Kong. Not to mention a very entertaining trip to Camelot so Robin could pick up Excalibur (the Monty Python Camelot, you see). There was another scene with staff training (literally!) where Andy Jones and Barrowman were trying desperately not to laugh at each other, that I think was supposed to be skewed toward US Army boot camp but I’m really not sure!

Cassandra’s cavern set pieces were quite impressive even though her inclusion only makes sense if you think of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (the female dancers were dressed as ravens and the male ones were in S&M gear!). The Sheriff, played by Pete Gallagher, was completely evil and not very imaginative, though he did perform a superb duet with Marian. Marian was played with all of Lucy Griffiths’ earnestness (though lacking the modern sarcasm—I have to confess, though, the whole thing made me want to watch BBC’s Robin Hood series 1 again). It’s curious that this panto lacked the oft-found woman-playing-a-man and the pantomime animal (a horse, usually, with two people playing the front and back ends). The final “wow” of the first act were Russian skaters on ice (no, really!) skating to “Everything I Do (I Do For You)” followed by Robin and Marian skating and singing to the same. Soooo cheesy—and yet, Barrowman was in fine voice for this.

During interval I got tapped on the shoulder—was I a friend of a member of the cast? I was quite bewildered by this question and sadly never quite found out what was going on. I didn’t have the traditional ice cream, and all the bars and lobbies were so crowded I couldn’t even get close to see what kind of souvenirs/food was on offer (I brought some coconut mushrooms to snack on!). The highlight of the second act was Robin disappearing from the Sheriff’s Spikes of Doom and reappearing in a box. Because he was leaning over to address the stage, it didn’t take much for an older lady seated in the box to smack Barrowman on the bottom. This flummoxed him, causing him to forget his lines and laugh hysterically. He encountered her to give him another whack, which she did. VERY HARD. I myself was cracking up at this point. “Meanwhile, back at the script . . .” prompted the Sheriff, more or less indulgently, from the stage. Later, when Robin beckoned Marian to join him and Will on an overturned log, he admonished the audience for its naughty interpretation. After that, all was lost as everything turned into an innuendo. When King Richard returned and Robin proposed to Marian, Barrowman spun as he got on bended knee, declaring to the audience, “I’ve turned.” OMG.

I didn’t think Robin Hood was as well-written musically or dialogue-wise as Jack and the Beanstalk, and it seems to me the sound levels were more oppressive than last time (I sat in more or less the same place). Still, John was all smiles, and since I know from his autobiography that this is the kind of work he loves to do, I knew it was sincere. He’s a gorgeous man, a good vocalist, and an entertainer well worth seeing live. At the end, we were encouraged to donate money to the Haiti appeal (£7000 had already been raised). I went to wait for Barrowman at the stage door, as I had a copy of TTZ to give him. Sadly he slipped out the front, disappointing me for the second time. BARROWMAN!! *shakes fist* Nevertheless, he’d sent one of the cast members to the stage door with signed postcards, one of which I took. The ride back on the late night train from Cardiff will go into the CRANKY YANK on yobs and chavs, I promise you.

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