The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new Christmas show is a thrilling, hilarious, and joyful retelling of the legend of Robin Hood which constantly subverts expectations and throws up surprises. The show follows Robin-obsessed schoolboy JJ as he is rocketed back in time to discover that his hero is not at all what he thought. Not only is Robin a woman, but she is out of the ‘robbing the rich and giving to the poor’ game, letting the Sheriff of Nottingham’s plans go unopposed as she tries to run off to Spain. Soon, with JJ’s help, Robin is getting the gang back together for one last job – a heist on the Sheriff’s castle during the biggest event of the year.
Almost as much a tribute to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven as it is to the hero of Sherwood Forest, the show manages to capture so much of what makes perhaps the most stylish film ever made so brilliant. Funky music, wry character introductions and scene transitions that mimic the smoothest of cinematic cuts imbue the show with the thrill of the heist. We get enough cunning plotting to make the plan gripping, and enough knowing hand-waving of the sillier details that it doesn’t get bogged down in technicalities.
The show is also unfailingly funny, and particularly effective is the fact there’s almost no route for humour that isn’t exploited. Robin Hood isn’t afraid to mix a subtle aside with the broadest of gags; a request that people stop pooing in the local well is almost immediately followed by a peasant’s considered thoughts on a more progressive tax policy. (It is a real mark of how well-written the script is that it manages to fill the story with a message more complex than ‘taxes bad’ without distracting from the fun of a family show).
But beyond the laughs, Robin Hood is also full of real moments of danger, sorrow, and love, and the performers capture this mix well. Here, Robin’s backstory is darker than many Christmas shows would probably attempt, and Kerry Lovell’s performance captures both the bravado and the grief of someone trying to put their past behind them. James Newton’s Sheriff achieves the perfect villain balance; simultaneously utterly ridiculous (playing his own fanfare on the trombone, or repeating a mantra of ‘I am cheeky, I am sneaky’ to himself) and genuinely threatening, with a slow menace that holds the whole auditorium. With the character of JJ (played in the performance I saw by understudy Alex Roberts), the script and performance combine to take a character who could very easily be annoying (naive, hyperactive, occasionally pretentious) and make him absolutely charming. By acknowledging the character’s flaws as well as his strengths, the show allows JJ both more depth than many a child protagonist – to be a full part of the ensemble rather than a vehicle for questions about the plot.
The design (by Anna Orton) feels like a perfect mix of the traditional and the innovative; like a balance between panto and Peter Brook. Astroturf arches and trees rising in the background provide a playing space that gets filled with wearable market stalls, strip lit jail cells and makeshift boxing rings. Joshua Gadsby’s lighting underpins every location subtly and effectively, making the same bare stage seem comforting and romantic, or harsh and threatening.
I’ve often wondered recently if I’ve become jaded with theatre; if it just can’t delight me as it used to. This show brought back that sense of utter, uncontrolled joy. Much like Ocean’s Eleven perfects the blockbuster, Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest provides all the best things you want from a Christmas show; humour, adventure, romance, and surprise.
Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest runs at Bristol Old Vic until 8 January. More info here.