ROBIN HOOD: THE LEGEND. RE-WRITTEN at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“The performances are uniformly strong, joyful, silly and skilful”
Everyone has their own favourite image of Robin Hood, whether it be Kevin Costner, Jason Connery, Russell Crowe (really?); or the Disney rendition. Or a camp pantomime outlaw in green tights. Carl Grose has taken three of those archetypes and has them gate-crash his alternative – and quite eccentric – version of the legend. The device is an embodiment of the quirky humour that, unlike the sleight of hand archery skills on display, often misses its target.
Part of the problem is that nobody, including Grose, seems to know where the target is. You can’t see the wood for the trees in this overgrown Sherwood Forest where tangled brambles of offbeat ideas lie in wait like thorny catch weed. You don’t need to wade too far in to get lost. Or frustrated enough to want to turn back. Tax collectors in hi vis jackets delight at relieving commoners of their bow fingers. Fingers which, no less, end up in a casket the sheriff keeps hidden away, occasionally lifting the lid to allow the dismembered digits to prophesise to him in squeaky voices. We are in a pretty slaughterous world where scarlet blood puddles and muddles the greenery. Where fact, fiction, myth and legend collide at the whim of an insurgent history teacher on acid.
The opening moments are magical, the scene set by the Balladeer (Nandi Bhebhe; velvet voiced and spellbinding). The landscape is borrowed from Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ as the mystical atmosphere swiftly morphs into a kind of ‘state of the nation’ play. “Who owns England?”, the downtrodden ask. Sheriff Baldwyn (a commanding performance from Alex Mugnaioni) keeps the King in a permanent state of befuddlement by spiking his tea in order to have free reign to be as dastardly as can be. Paul Hunter’s portrayal of the king is a masterclass in comic buffoonery, while still conveying that this hapless monarch knows much more than he is letting on.
Chiara Stephenson’s split-level set crudely separates the two classes, but there is plenty of social mobility. Not least the sheriff’s grog-guzzling wife, Marian (Ellen Robertson – in fine, playful form). We are never quite sure of her motives, but her disdain of, and possibly guilt over, her privilege drives her to extremes of disguise, the likes of which would be far too big a spoiler to reveal here. An ensemble troupe of Merry Men (excuse the Olde Worlde gender reference) create the required mayhem to subvert the established order. Apparently, it all started with a plan to build a new road, putting much of the forest at risk. A rather throwaway shuffle onto the environmentalist bandwagon, but I guess Grose felt the need.
The performances are uniformly strong, joyful, silly and skilful. It must have been a task, but director Melly Still guides the company through the mayhem with a steady hand. For the most part. At interval, the lawns are littered with bemused expressions heading for solace at the bar. It is short lived. The second act gets jaw-droppingly bizarre as we become lost in a sea of abdications, beheadings and resurrections. In the spirit of true farce, some ends are tied up, but no matter how hard we try the disjointed fragments of this production never really meet in our minds. The theatrical trickery has to be admired (Ira Mandela Siobhan is compelling as the conjuring but doomed villain, Gisburne) but the overall journey is unnavigated. Lost in the forest, left to make it up as it goes along.
As the sun sets and a crescent moon hangs above Regent’s Park, we file out into the night wondering if what we have just seen really did come from the same writer who penned “Dead Dog in a Suitcase” and “The Grinning Man”. The tagline in the PR blurb pronounces “Think you know the story of Robin Hood? Think again!”. It promises revelation, but the question remains the same as we leave the theatre.
‘Told by an Idiot’ have taken two of the most iconic, unusual and influential figures in show business and have shone a refracted light on them with such cock-eyed and fascinating focus that we see them both fresh and familiar. Fact gives way to fantasy, yet the truth of their characters magically shines through. The show, “Charlie and Stan”, ran in 2020, followed by a regional tour in 2021; and it is fitting that it now comes to Wilton’s Music Hall – a venue perfectly suited in which to tell the tale of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. They both had similar theatrical origins – the sketch and the pantomime of the music hall. They were contemporaries, and they both had parental disasters (which is explored in the show to great effect too). Both men made their first American tour with Fred Karno’s Company of Clowns, which is where we find them here, setting sail for New York at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.
As part of the London International Mime Festival, we expect a show with little or no dialogue; but we don’t expect such succinct and engaging storytelling. A mix of laughter and poignancy that is quite mesmerising. Framed in a series of vignettes, the narrative flashes forwards and backwards, and into dreams and nightmares. Stan and Charlie’s relationship was a troubled one – the real facts are cast overboard pretty early on, and we are left with the emotive essence, and eighty minutes of slapstick, acrobatics, dance, circus, music, mime. And plenty of gags.
The company comprises just four actors that often appear to be much more in number as they strut, disappear, reappear and morph onstage with an elastic theatricality. Danielle Bird captures Chaplin’s mannerisms with uncanny accuracy while making the acrobatic physicality feel second nature. There is a touch of Aurelia Thiérree about her performance – a fitting and perhaps unwitting similarity to Chaplin’s granddaughter; yet Bird’s natural stage presence, charisma and fluid performance certainly meets the standards set by the great family. Jerome Marsh-Reid, as Laurel, has perfected the raised eyebrows and affected nods and replicates, if not outshines, the flexibility and acrobatic skills needed for the role. We first see Nick Haverson as the cigar-chewing impresario Fred Karno, before he miraculously morphs into Charlie’s drunken and abusive dad; and later – Ollie Hardy. Complementing the trio is Sara Alexander, accompanying the action on piano. Seemingly improvised, it is as note perfect as can be. With not a sheet of manuscript of Zoe Rahman’s silent movie-esque score in sight, her playing is linked, by invisible strings, to every step and gesture the actors make. Even when Alexander moves away from the piano onto the stage (at one point as Stan’s mum), the musicality silently follows her with every movement.
It is quite a stunning masterclass in physical theatre, but the technique in no way detracts from the sheer entertainment value. Ioana Curelea’s ramshackle set matches the disorderly genius of the piece, and of the characters’ minds. Yes – the show is outlandish and chronologically haphazard, but the camouflaged precision and subtlety bring an emotive power that belies the comedy. It is out of the ordinary. And extraordinary. A striking insight into over-familiar figures.
The rivalry and camaraderie of Chaplin and Laurel is beautifully portrayed. Much is made of Stan being Charlie’s understudy on that first American tour. Charlie also dreams of throwing Stan overboard the ship. One of the most touching and affecting moments is brought to life in a sketch in which Stan visits Charlie, years later, at his Hollywood mansion. In Stan’s head they perform a tap dance together in perfect unison. In reality, though, Charlie is not at home and Marsh-Reid’s forlorn Stan realises his fruitless journey with sad eyes. Undoubtedly a reference to the fact that – bizarrely – Chaplin makes no mention of Laurel at all in his autobiography.
It is not easy to make slapstick and pathos walk so stylishly hand in hand. But ‘Told by an Idiot’ make it look so effortless; and as familiarly iconic and nostalgic as Charlie Chaplin’s stick and frogleg walk. “Charlie and Stan” is unique, original but instantly recognisable. A far-fetched fantasy that seduces reality. And ultimately seduces the audience.