Thursday, 10 December 2015

Theatre review: The Ballad of Robin Hood

After they provided a popular Christmas show at the previous venue, Tacit Theatre are once again telling tall tales at Southwark Playhouse, and they revisit their setting for The Canterbury Tales to tell them: The actual Tabard Tavern probably stood quite close to where the theatre is now, which makes it a strange fit for a story usually based in and around Nottingham. But The Ballad of Robin Hood isn't quite the usual story of the famous outlaw, and Greg Freeman's story finds a way to bring Robin to London. As the title suggests, the play goes back to the original ballads that first popularised the legend, with a particular interest in some of the darker stories that don't usually get told. Once again the Tabard has been set up as an actual pub with a bar selling mulled wine to the audience, the cast doing songs and dances as everyone comes in (and getting me to provide the drum beats, which is harder than it sounds when you have no innate sense of rhythm, and Rosalind Blessed's distracting you.) Eventually the landlady (Blessed) tells the story of when a Sheriff (Tom Daplyn) brought his prisoner to her bar and he turned out to be Robin Hood himself (Owen Findlay.)

Robin is, of course, a folk hero and the regulars don't want to turn him in, but they risk their own lives if they help him. To decide what to do, and with the help of their resident troubadour (Ellen Chivers,) they recount some of the ballads about him to see if he's a hero or villain.

Southwark Playhouse always like to do something a bit different for their family Christmas show and even when tackling a character as regularly staged as this one they've found a new angle, notably in choosing ballads whose stories aren't often told. In the case of a teenage Robin murdering 15 foresters because they wouldn't honour a bet, it's not surprising if the story tends to get brushed under the carpet. It's not all "darker and edgier" though, and the concluding tale of breaking into the Tower of London to release a familiar prisoner is fun, with a lot of climbing around the set, and a funny turn from Joel Mellinger's jittery Will Scarlett.

Daplyn and Annabelle Brown's production integrates music well (Brown also composes,) and I loved the lighting and sound effect that signalled our return from a story to the framing device in the tavern, which gives the impression of being inside a zoetrope. Freeman's script, though, I felt could have done with a couple more passes - its attempts to mix fun for the children with a bit of political commentary for the adults never feels that confident, making for a few tonally weird moments: Marian and a group of conspirators discussing regime change seemed, unsurprisingly, to bore the life out of the kids in the front row, while the topical "you don't need to sleep with animals to be a great leader" is so awkwardly shoehorned in it doesn't actually get a laugh.

I also would have liked to see more of Dora Rubinstein's charismatic Maid Marian, here more than Robin's equal in both the fighting and the political firebrand stakes (indeed when the two butt heads over the ways they try to improve life for the poor, Robin's ambitions come across as very small compared to hers.) But there's still a lot of fun to be had here, and a running joke about everyone being scared of the unseen Little John gets a great punchline that proves it can be handy when your landlady has a famous dad.

The Ballad of Robin Hood by Greg Freeman is booking until the 26th of December at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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