If you’re putting on a big, family-friendly theatre production at this time of year, essentially you’re faced with two options. You can go for a full-on, traditional “It’s behind you!” panto, or else you can try for something a bit more unusual, inventive and substantial: a direct alternative to panto. Wanted! Robin Hood by the Library Theatre chooses the latter option, but gets itself in a right old muddle in the process.
These days, Robin Hood re-imaginings are a whole new tradition in their own right. For instance, we’ve had the BBC’s teatime series and the Lancaster Dukes’ walkabout theatre show earlier this year. This version sticks to all the key established elements: Robin and his men are at loose in Sherwood Forest, striking out at the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham as Robin conducts an unconventional courtship of Maid Marian. But in the main it aims for contemporary grit rather than floppy hats and green tights. In fact, these merry men are swathed in jerkins, leggings and scarves, a bit like a Dexys tribute band.
The stage design is simple and iconic, though there are points when the action risks getting lost in the short, high space of The Lowry‘s Quays Theatre. It’s certainly pacey in the telling and there are well-staged fight scenes at regular intervals. There are laughs too, but they’re not quite big or regular enough. Where it really underwhelms though is in a strange unevenness of tone. It swings between being a straight-faced historical drama and something much more contemporary. When Robin and John recount their first meeting, for instance, it’s in punchy, rhythmic rhyme – a rap, really. Robin in Da Hood, anyone?
The assembled scenes and performances don’t necessarily feel like they’re pitched at the same level. Sometimes it veers towards panto territory and, at other times, it goes right the other way. A set-piece scene at the celebrated archery contest invites audience participation with boo-hiss villains and actors clambering around the stalls. But next comes a pretty bleak torture scene in a dungeon: really tiny theatre-goers might want to steer clear, actually. But rather than resulting in an invigorating blend of styles, this presentation becomes jarring. It flits about trying everything where it really needs to be strong, clear and bold.
Another serious fault-line is the central trio of Robin, Marian and the Sheriff. They’re rather insipid and bloodless, lacking power and presence where they need to be summoning the stuff of pure legend. There’s not nearly enough of the chemical spark needed to sell the tale. Otherwise it comes across as a big of local argy-bargy about love and livestock, like an Archers plot-line that’s got out of hand. As it is, there’s not much to root for. The real gem in the cast is Peter Landi as Friar Tuck, who brings a welcome sense of twinkle and substance. The biggest laughs are all his.
It’s not all bad by any means. Yes it’s patchy, but there are fleeting moments when that magical blend of action and laughs is conjured up. The music is evocative and inventive use is made of dangling chains for fight scenes. Things pick up a lot in the second half when the characters, the merry men particularly, spring to life a bit more. There are a couple of cunning twists on established parts of Robin’s legend, too. Ultimately, though, it’s all rather flat which surely isn’t quite the ticket when presenting a legend for children at Christmas time. A really good traditional panto – whisper it – might actually be more fun, for all the family.
Review by Andy Murray
What: Wanted! Robin Hood
Where: Library Theatre at the Lowry, Salford Quays
When: until January 11, 2014