Drill Hall Arts Centre, London WC1
Opened 4 December, 1998

It began as transgression and grew into a tradition: this statement is true both of pantomime in general and of the Drill Hall's sexuality- and gender-bending pantos in particular. This year as last, Nona Shepphard directs a script first staged at the Chenies Street venue a decade earlier; Shepphard is also the writer of this tale in which Robyn (with, as she reminds us, an orthographical as well as a chromosomatic Y) assembles a band of stout-hearted women Big Joan, Alana Dale and Prioress Tuckberg to overcome the wicked male triumvirate headed by the Sheriff of Nottingham and win the hand of Maid Marian; "but she's a..." splutters the bemused Sheriff at the end, "and she's a..."

So far, so jolly... in theory. Bettina Reeves's set manages to cram crenellated masonry, a wattle hut and a mystic oak tree all onto the Drill Hall stage, and the all-female cast give it plenty of welly (an inappropriate turn of phrase, since there is not a single boots-and-tights ensemble in sight). But this show dates from more sombre days the third term of Thatcherism, in which the big musical number foreseeing a change on the way was more an expression of battered, belittled post-Clause 28 hope than a panto anthem. The script proves unable to shake off its heritage, as Robyn urges her comrades to "put aside our petty squabbles and ideological differences, and unite against the common enemy"; even as self-parody, such lines sound quaint at best.

Edda Sharpe as Robyn swashes her buckle well, Sandra James-Young as Big Joan threatens to swash every buckle within reach, and Noma Dumezweni turns shrieking and simpering into a minor art form as Alana Dale. Allison Harding makes the best of a skimpily written Sheriff's role, and Roz McCutcheon as Tuck confirms her status, first hinted at in this year's national stage tour of Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!, as a Wagnerian battleaxe par comic excellence. However, the Drill Hall punters seems a little too self-conscious to indulge themselves from the start, although they began on the press night to liven up after the lubrication of the interval (showing themselves in fine voice during the singalong of "Thank You For The Music"). The actors struggled badly during the first half, with Sharpe at one point thanking a completely silent house for their help, and found themselves simply lacking sufficient fuel in the form of a zippy script to get up to the required speed. Gags like "It's ever so nice to be OUT! and about" simply do not cut the mustard any more. Not even a delicious tribute to Danny Kaye's "vessel with the pestle" routine from The Court Jester is enough to lift this Robyn Hood out of the undergrowth.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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