Perhaps not thinking of panto at the time, Orson Welles once quotably opined: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Nonetheless, his after-dinner aphorism fits the peculiarly British form of seasonal theatre like a Christmas glove.
Pantomime is exacting in its expectations – villains must be cat-called, thighs slapped, and menace must approach unnoticed from behind. The artistry lies in the style in which the motions are gone through, the wit with which the boxes are ticked. This year’s production by eight-freestyle at Manchester’s Contact, a witty conflation of Robin Hood with Babes In The Wood, punctuated with a soundtrack plucked from the branches of 80s pop, surmounts its strictures with an aplomb that even Welles might raise a glass of sherry to.
Director Sean Canning furnishes the audience with a show that demonstrates an unfussy attention to detail from the outset, with a pre-show presentation from assistant director and fairy of the forest, Kate Mitchell, taking the form of the decade’s graphics. Setting out his stall, it provides a handy prologue for younger members of the audience while accustoming older members to the device of reserving the stage behind the curtain for big production numbers.
The first of these song-and-dance routines, set to the unexpected metal of AC/DC’s Back In Black, introduces Adam Urey’s preening Sheriff of Nottingham, a black-hearted blackguard in a Limahl frightwig, with the same self-regard and almost feline indolence of Horrible Histories‘ Death. Like all good pantomime villains, the spotlight loves him almost as much as the audience pretends to hate him, nearly to the point of upsetting the story’s moral compass.
Urey has competition, however, in the limelight thievery department in the magnificently be-frocked and glamorously be-glittered form of Jonathon Mayor as nursie, formerly Wilma Fingerdo, a Dame that there really is nothing like; a formidable proposition free with her propositions, a double-entendre dressed up to the nines with a tongue more wicked than Snow White’s stepmother. Like walking in kitten heels, it’s a turn that requires a delicate balance between giving a wink to the adults and keeping it clean for the kids. Mayor sashays down that particular catwalk like a supermodel.
As the inclusion of Back In Black suggests, the production is not too shy to include numbers that swim against the 80s mainstream, allowing Connor Wyse (as Gilbert the Goth) and Red Redmond (as Alan A’Dale) the opportunity to fine tune their excellent comic double act with a welcome, though truncated, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.
It’s a credit to their rapport that neither are completely outshone by Urey and Mayor, and a show-stopping Stand And Deliver also gives Michael Higgwe’s somewhat plot-peripheral lead his three minutes to shine. Adam and The Ants’ call to insect insurrection rounds off with lyrics refitted to the end of a year, like every other, in which “the rich are getting richer, and the poor always loses” (sic). The small subversion is a piece with the topicality that peppers the plot, adding contemporary seasoning to the more familiar taste of its mechanics.
If you were inclined to carp, you might observe that Rebecca Crookson as Maid Marian, much like her leading man, is not given much character to play, and that, in spite of a token Goth, there’s no time for even a cursory Love Cats, but such reservations would have cut little ice with an audience from babes-in-arms to grandparents who left the auditorium braced against the chill December evening with a Ready Brek glow of feel-good warmth. To quote another 80s act, sadly not utilised for one of its numbers, to be unmoved by Robin Hood would require either a heart of glass or a heart of stone.
Images courtesy of Contact
Robin Hood: The 80s Panto is running at Contact theatre in Manchester until December 31, 2022. Tickets are still available to buy, for prices and show times please click here.