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.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE at the New Victoria Theatre | UK Tour
“a wealth of eye catching staging and sound effects”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same title, adapted by Joel Horwood, and directed by Katy Rudd, will not disappoint Gaiman fans. This production, which opened at the National Theatre in 2019, is now touring at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. This show is a treat for those who enjoy spectacle. It has a wealth of eye catching staging and sound effects, plus a seamless merging of human actors and puppets of all shapes and sizes. The story is about a twelve year old boy, told from his perspective, and it is, in typical Gaiman fashion, a nightmarish tale. It begins with a suicide in a car.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is set in a place both familiar, and deeply and thrillingly strange. A boy of the verge of adolescence finds himself battling forces beyond his imagination and control, assisted only by his best friend, Lettie. Life has been pretty unremarkable for the Boy and his family until the night when their lodger’s body is discovered in the family car. The world as the Boy knows it suddenly becomes unrecognizable, and inexplicable. Together, he and Lettie attempt to banish the supernatural forces unleashed by the suicide into their placid neighbourhood. It turns out that Lettie and her family are pretty strange also, hiding in plain sight in an old farmhouse that appears to have existed forever. Lettie is similarly timeless, showing the Boy a duck pond that can become an ocean, and how to fight a flea that has become a monster beyond imagining. Horwood’s adaptation is true to its sources, but it does suffer from a common problem when adapting novels to the stage. Sooner or later, the dramatic action gets swallowed up by the exposition, and the pace begins to drag. But there is so much going on visually in in this production that most audiences will not mind. The sympathetic characters, and the strength of the story, will keep people happily engaged.
Despite the lengthy playing time of play, time passes quickly enough in the company of Katy Rudd’s imaginative direction, and her talented band of actors and puppeteers. There is the set, designed by Fly Davis, which gives us a sense of a mysterious dark space framed by tree branches, and which also light up like Christmas trees when occasion demands. There’s a nice shift between the every day clothing of the Boy and his family, with the outlandish, out of time clothes of Lettie, her mother and grandmother (designed by Samuel Wyer, who also designed the puppets.) Paule Constable’s lighting is likewise essential for a well defined shift between worlds. But the real power of this production is wielded by the actors and puppeteers, who not only bring the main characters to life, but the constantly changing sets as well. With a nod to the techniques of bunraku, figures dressed in black are constantly bringing furniture on and off the stage. More frighteningly, they create the huge, otherworldly monsters that are conjured out the liminal spaces that exist just on the edge of the Sussex countryside. Finn Caldwell’s puppetry direction, together with Steven Hoggett’s movement direction, deserve special notice for all the complicated work that makes this such a visual feast.
The actors are more than up to the task of working with such a complex palette of sound, light and visuals. The Boy (played on this evening by Keir Ogilvy) and Lettie (Millie Hikasa) are a sympathetic duo caught up in an epic battle. Charlie Brooks, in the thankless task of playing the villain, deftly manages the shifts between the seemingly unthreatening Ursula, and her terrifying alter-ego. Dad, played by Trevor Fox, is particularly good as a man caught up in hiding his grief and trying to remain cheerful and positive for his children. The witchy trio of Lettie, her mother Winnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams) bring magic and comic reassurance to the stage. The scenes in which they appear always seem brighter and more vivid, despite the lack of modern conveniences in their old farmhouse.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s work will enjoy this show. It’s also well worth a visit for audiences who have never seen this kind of production before. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives us performers who do the lion’s share of the work. In their hard working hands, they show us the collision of reality and magic. An ocean really does seem to come on stage for the children to play in. See it, and marvel at all the things a theatre of the imagination can do.