Babes In The Wood, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight until Friday, 7.30pm (last few tickets for first three, limited availability for Friday); Saturday, 2pm (last few) and 7.30pm (limited). Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
HOWARD Ella reckons this is the best of the 13 Rowntree Players pantomimes under his writer-directorship. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, but he does have a point. This is a case of 13th time, luckier still, for family audiences at the York community theatre.
For a start, Babes In The Wood is two shows for the price of one: weaving Robin Hood and his merry band, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff into the fairy tale of those two poor orphans abandoned in woodland by their wicked uncle.
Don’t be hood-winked by the show title. It is rather more Robin’s story and characters that dominate,including distaff variations on a theme, while accommodating the misfortunes of Hansel (Henry Cullen/Fergus Green) and Gretel (Maddie Chalk/Ayda Mooney) in their Gingerbread House, cooked sweeter and cuter than in the dark fable of yore.
Now, Robin (Hannah King) takes on not only a rescue mission to free Maid Marion (Marie-Louise Surgenor) from the tower and the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Jamie McKeller) and sidekick Will Snatchell (Joe Marucci), but also vows to find Hansel and Gretel.
For Friar Tuck, read Freya Tuck (Meg Badrick), and so on through the Merry Band of Alana Dale (Keelie Newbold) Georgie Green (Erin Willis), Jill Scarlett (Mollie Surgenor/Eva Howe) and Little Joan (Libby Roe/Charla Banks).
Put them together with King’s traditional, thigh-slapping yet somehow girl-power principal boy Robin Hood and suddenly they are aping SIX The Musical in Six, a musical number that makes great play of the sisterhood buzz musical of the decade (already booked in for June 27 to July 2 return to the Grand Opera House next summer, by the way).
Musicals are a running theme to the song-and-dance numbers in Ella and musical director Jessica Viner fast-moving show, from the opening Hairspray ensemble routine (Good Morning Sherwood Town) to Dirty Rotten’s echo of Something Rotten.
Best of all is Musical, all singing, all dancing and all seven minutes of it, led by Gemma McDonald’s cheeky, chipper, cartoonesque Kurt Jester, who lost her voice at Friday’s dress rehearsal but thankfully called on Doctor Theatre to see her through two shows on Saturday.
The comic (bubble-haired McDonald) and the dame (Graham Smith’s slightly grumpy but lovable ‘Humpy’, alias Dame Harmony Humperdinck) are no longer chained to working in the Sheriff’s castle, but freelance travelling actors instead.
One is the greatest Shakespearean actor of her age, with an ego to match; the other is a comic extraordinaire in the daft jester tradition. Both have a licence to be loose cannons and pretty much run the show in their unruly way.
King’s Robin and Surgenor’s Maid Marion deliver a knockout Without Love in the tower by the No Exit sign, after Marion knocks back Robin’s demand to do a Rapunzel with her hair, whereupon Robin recourses to a ladder entry through the open window. Physical comedy in the classic English tradition.
Ella loves a pun, a political dig (for example, “Party?”. Correction: “Work gathering”) and partnerships too: not only the regular double act of Smith & McDonald and principal boy and girl King and Surgenor, but also a new combination of McKeller and Marucci, actors with previous form for Rowntree Players, but now venturing into the dark side, albeit to self-delusional comic effect as the topically tax-hiking Sheriff and the dimwitted, snatch-all Snatchell.
McKeller is particularly inspired casting. Now making his name on the streets of York as ghostwalk host Doctor Dorian Deathly, he returns to his former stamping ground to make a big imprint with his gleefully dastardly Sheriff, eyebrows arched, voice arch, stage walk swaggering. “There’s still a touch of showbiz lurking behind the venom,” as Ella puts it and he’s spot on.
The comic and the dame nail the slapstick sludge scene; Viner’s musical band are as merry as Robin’s band; the senior chorus and young Blue/Red Team (Red on Saturday night) lap up every ensemble scene, and Ami Carter’s choreography is all dash, nothing slapdash.
Ella and his fellow set designers Paul Mantle and scenic artist Anna Jones have excelled too for the tower and forest alike. Andrea Dillon and Claire Newbold have fun with the costumes, for the pink-fixated dame as ever, but doubly so for the Merry Band in the Six pastiche.
You will love the all-action songsheet number too in a production that comes with genuine icing on the cake: a snow-topped roof from a past panto now repurposed to the dame’s mocking as the Gingerbread House.