By BRUCE DENNILL
Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood / Directed by Janice Honeyman / Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Search “pantomime” on this blog and you’ll find some banter about how – to paraphrase – it’s a wonderful institution in terms of its ability to attract first-timers and particularly children to the theatre. You’ll also see commentary about the possible/probable correlation between that accessibility and the fact that the stories don’t require (or merit) much investment from their adult audiences.
Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood (a mash-up of Robin Hood and Hansel & Gretel) gets the balance right to a much greater degree, thanks to a more focused take on the current affairs aspect of the show, and to the high quality of the ensemble work (along with a few other specific highlights).
Where the usual revisiting of a myriad damaging or disappointing headlines from the past year results in perhaps a couple of chuckles or the odd groan, this year’s script picks just a couple of high-profile news moments and lets Graham Hopkins, great actor that he is, ham his way through being Donald Trump or Jacob Zuma or whoever else requires taking down a notch. There are irregular nods to other recognisably local phenomena – the more (sadly) clichéd stuff like beggars at traffic lights or hijackings – but it is the quickfire political stuff that hits the mark more often.
Musical director Rowan Bakker has done wonderful things with the songs, mixing together 160 songs into a sleek but substantial soundtrack. Not all of the solo moments work – some of the cast are more actors than they are singers and some of the great singers are given songs to perform that don’t sit as well with their personae as might have been hoped. But the large ensemble pieces are terrific, with both the choreography and singing of the same standard of any highly rated musical.
A few performances are worthy of being singled out. Hopkins, as the Sheriff of Nottingham doesn’t get to show off his flair for the dramatic, but he has a hoot as the villain, and LJ Urbani draws the ire of the crowd as a combination evil stepmother and witch, Dame Emmarentia The Ugly. Clive Gilson as Lenny The Loser is anything but, managing to be one of the most cheerful characters on stage despite his hen-pecked status as Emmarentia’s husband and the Sheriff’s brother. Carmen Pretorius’s immense talent is perhaps under-used, though she gives Maid Marian plenty of presence. But the lion’s share of the praise must go to Kate Normington as Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest, which is just a very long name for “narrator”. She dances, she sings, she tells jokes and she links apparently disparate pieces of action with apparent ease. That it requires an enormous amount of stamina is evident in her understandable breathlessness from time to time, but then anyone who’s lowered from the ceiling one moment and galloping around in flippers the next is going to get her heart rate up.
In keeping with the slightly more adult-friendly tone, writer-director Janice Honeyman has also done away with the usual closing singalong, replacing it with an hilarious and energy-sapping (for Gilson, Jaco van Rensburg and Bongi Mthombeni, the actors involved) update of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It’s very funny indeed and, for those in the audience who don’t like the mass participation material much, it’s a blessing.
True to its roots, then, but pleasingly different, this is one of the better pantomimes in recent years.