Watford Palace Theatre’s Panto Has the Aah Factor!

Robin Hood Watford

Robin Hood, Watford Palace Theatre to 28 December

If you’re looking for something a bit different from the traditional panto story, yet with all your favourite panto elements safely in place, don your Lincoln Green and head off to Watford Palace Theatre, temporarily relocated up Nottingham way according to the signposts on Cleo Pettit’s fabulous painted front cloth.

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Things get off to a great traditional start in WPT director Brigid Larmour’s pacy and imaginative production, thanks to Philip Cox’s lip-smackingly evil Sheriff of Nottingham plotting world domination. He spits out some fine rhyming couplets at an excited audience eager to hiss and boo. As we are a bit further up North, blood rhymes with Hood of course! And instead of a Good Fairy, a sort of Northern version of Mystic Meg calling herself Shirley the Soothsayer from Sheffield (feisty and fun Sheena Patel) materialises alongside the Sheriff and our story takes off in a whole new direction when the he corrals Shirley to help him search his castle for the Secret Scroll (of South Oxhey of course!), which will help him turn all he touches to gold.
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You’ll have to wait for Act 2 to find out where that storyline is going. Meanwhile we do get to meet our hero and heroine, Robin and Maid Marion, and they get to meet each other and fall in love, despite the machinations of the evil Sheriff to lure Marion into his castle and his clutches. Robert Rees is a dashing Robin, part principal boy, part Errol Flynn with a gorgeous powerful voice. Jill McAusland’s dainty Marion makes up in sweetness what she lacks in voice power and comes into her own as she sheds her medieval robes and finds her inner warrior, donning tunic and tights in the forest.
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Of course there’s an archery contest for Robin to win and bit of swash and buckle – and a couple of merry persons, waiting for Robin under the greenwood tree.  Little John has become Little Joan (sprightly Erica Guyatt) aptly named as she’s a hearty, jolly hockey sticks sort of girl, just like poet John Betjeman’s Joan Hunter Dunn. Donovan Blackwood’s Friar Tuck is as generously expansive as you could wish.
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The ‘goodies’ wouldn’t be complete without a Dame and sure enough, she takes the stage in the amply-bosomed figure of Nurse Nellie, Marion’s nanny, a terrific turn from WPT veteran Terence Frisch.
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So, as promised, all the elements are indeed in place for a traditional panto with a twist, including plenty of chances for the audience to yell out ‘behind you’ and ‘oh no it isn’t’ and a fun slapstick scene up at t’castle, where the newly-discovered Scroll gets muddled up with copious rolls of wallpaper.
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What makes this panto special is some especially fine singing not just  from Robin but also from soul brother Tuck and little Joan, and especially from  Philip Cox‘s Sherriff. His rendition of Goldfinger gets the second half off to such a fabulous start that I wondered whether scriptwriter Andrew Pollard wrote his clever plot giving him the ‘Midas touch’  just to get that number in! And I loved the harmonising a capella singing from our Merry persons disguised as mummers to try to outwit the Sheriff.
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This they do in some especially delightful floral-print costumes, just one of Cleo Pettit’s imaginative and beautifully realised costume designs. I loved Nurse Nellie’s steeple headdress and the sets are just gorgeous, in delicious bright pastels, artfully inspired by Art Nouveau, the two-storey pop-up picture book castle entwined with painted roses and decked out with a painted Christmas tree.
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There’s a whole lot of scenic artists, students on scenic art placements and costume makers credited in the programme and amazing, fantastical hats and headdresses created by milliner Claire Strickland. Their labours certainly make this show. And the crowning glory is that pop-up painted castle – where upstairs you can just glimpse the super band. Musical director/arranger Andy Ralls and his merry band, Antoine Edery on drums and percussion and Daniel Short on guitar and bass, really cook up a storm.
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Finally Erica Guyatt and Sheena Patel get an extra honourable mention for a turn as the Sheriff’s long-suffering henchpersons. They may get the worst of their fights with Robin and Co., but at least they prove that medieval Nottingham was a place of equal opportunities for women in the castle’s workplace!
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There’s no troupe of young local performers in this seasonal show, but the aah factor was more than provided for on the afternoon I saw the show by the four tiny tots who took to the stage with great panache for the audience participation song (Robin Hood riding through the glen of course), the youngest of whom was not quite three years old – aah indeed!
Judi Herman
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Robin Hood at the Watford Palace Theatre until 28 December
Box Office: 01923 225671 or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

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