You know where you are with Robin Hood. Merrie England is alive and well and living in Sherwood Forest. Maid Marion is good and true and Robin traditionally has wash-and-go hair. Certainly no production is complete without arrows twanging into a tree or thudding into the chests of baddies. Indeed this show kicks off with a Norman using a mobile phone, only to be shot mid-call. It's the most original "please switch off..." announcement that I've seen.
As in previous years, writers Dan Danson and Richard da Costa, who also directs, have squeezed this big yarn into the small Tobacco Factory auditorium, staging the show with benches running either side of the stage in traverse format. The green wood is represented by a brace of oak trees and Astroturf at one end and a Norman castle interior at the other. Audiences are offered Saxon and Norman smocks and there's even mead - don't go near it - on sale at the interval.
Although Robin of Loxley is the hero, it's the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham who is the chief focus of interest. No actor can do this part without being influenced by Alan Rickman, whose line in snarling comic ham stole the Kevin Costner film version in the Nineties. Here, Paul Agar gives the dastardly Sheriff a camp petulance that is, similarly, more psychopathic than plausible. He duly gets a good quota of hiss and boo from the serried ranks of kiddies packing out the show. My side of the theatre cheered on Gilbert of the Whitehand at the archery tournament in which real arrows flew gratifyingly about.
This production more or less does the business, though it never quite realises the story's swashbuckling romance. There is a serious problem with under-population in the forest scenes, too. The green wood is after all the heart of the thing - a place of disguise and refuge, an Arden in which brotherhood is forged in rebellion, though in this case the story does little to communicate much teeming atmosphere.
The cast of characters, though, is intact. Matt Rozier's upper crust Will Scarlet takes an early bath. Maid Marion (Anna Shearer) is a hearty lass clearly destined to become a school games mistress, and Robin of Loxley (Tristan Beint) exudes loyalty and youth in equal measure. Ray Gardner's Friar Tuck (he doubles up as a wonderfully venal Bishop) has the right proportions and Richard Ashton's shaggy Little John packs a jolly wallop with his staff.
Although the show is clearly aimed at keeping even little'uns diverted, a badly timed first half means children are ushered out with aching bladders. But it's a breezy, all-ages sort of event - with charming songs by Malcolm Newton - and its reward is a packed to the rafters audience infinitely less passive than the city's Old Vic theatre.
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