The Heart of Robin Hood, Beach House Theatre’s main production for 2017 (Aug. 16-20), was probably the perfect exercise for the Crescent Beach-based summer theatre company (calling to mind, more than once, its brilliant and bravura debut with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2012).
Shakespearian in tone and structure – but without the 16th-century dialogue that spoon-fed modern audiences seem to find so distressing – it was a rollicking, well-staged and well-costumed ensemble piece, attacked with energy by a large and likable cast who, in places, exhibited real flair.
It’s not hard to see why co-director Candace Radcliffe had championed the show to her artistic collaborator Rick Harmon.
David Farr’s script, first produced as a Christmas entertainment by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, is the nearest thing you can get to an adult pantomime: historically-aware but accessible, packed with potential for its players, complete with a cross-dressing Maid Marion (shades of Twelfth Night’s Viola), some sharp jabs at contemporary politics, enough knockabout humour to counterbalance a few Grand Guignol excursions into execution and mutilation, and an endearing panto-esque animal, Plug the dog.
As the latter, Jane Weaver, one of Radcliffe’s Earl Marriott Secondary alumni, provided an object lesson on how The Heart Of Robin Hood worked, and where it didn’t.
With nary a word of dialogue (unless barks and growls count) Weaver was thoroughly and admirably immersed in her imaginative canine portrayal, owning a role that some other actors might disdain. She illustrated the way that every actor needs to own, rather than simply inhabit, his or her role.
All successful theatre, after all, demands credibility in the moment, rather than stereotyped play-acting of situations and emotions. And the success of this production of The Heart of Robin Hood was in those moments where the cast forgot the challenges of being up there on stage, all the intricacies of fight choreography (well taught by Sylvie La Riviere), and all the relentless to-ing and fro-ing of the plot; when they simply ‘became’ their roles – and ran with them.
The Heart of Robin Hood is about the meeting of Robin (at this point more a ‘hood’ than a noble outlaw) and Marion (craving adventure in the forest and chafing at 12th century societal norms that cast her as little more than a marriageable chattel).
It’s love/hate at first sight – and their all-but-inevitable union is the key, Farr suggests, to the enduring legend that evolved.
As the leads, Patrick Dodd and Marika Stanger, both possessed of the physical looks for such storybook characters, overcame a tendency to shouting and shrillness in early scenes, ultimately creating a convincingly emotional connection that became far more satisfying for the audience.
Stanger, particularly, seemed to relax as soon as she could don the man-drag of ‘Martin of Sherwood’, establishing a connection with the audience that gave added poignance to her self-sacrificing return to the castle and the unwelcome attentions of Prince John (Tom Gage).
Playing the villain to the hilt, Gage quickly hit his stride in a virtually seamless embodiment of evil, providing one of the strongest performances in the show.
Strong, too, were Isabella Sleeth and Austin Linder; genuine and appealing as John’s innocent victims, the children Sara and Jethro.
The usually reliable James Walker seemed a little ill-at-ease at last Friday’s performance, however, as Marion’s servant and confidant Pierre. As the kind of preening, yet cowardly, popinjay that Bob Hope used to play so well in his costume movie comedies, it’s a character that Walker understands, and, as expected, he won his share of laughs with it, particularly as the show went on. But somehow he seemed to confuse the offhand, condescending manner of Pierre, himself, with the requirements of the role to the play.
That’s a mistake for a character/narrator that Farr clearly counts on to establish an important early rapport with the audience, much as the stock ‘Idle Jack’ of pantomime has a vital function in forming a bond with younger viewers.
Gavi Beigel was black-hearted, menacing and appropriately creepy as Prince John’s henchman Gisborne, while Paul Richardson’s confidently over-the-top playing of a propaganda-spewing priest and a dithery bishop boldly condemned what sometimes passes for organized religion, whether in medieval, or more recent times.
As Marion’s monstrously self-obsessed and manipulative sister, Alice, the versatile Janine Guy also didn’t hold back, and achieved some strong moments, although without either her or directors Radcliffe and Harmon quite scoring a bull’s eye on Farr’s intended target – a money-worshipping segment of a present upper-class British elite whose lack of empathy borders on the psychopathic.
Kerry Van Sicle gave an earnest portrayal as Marion’s guardian Makepeace, fated to fall afoul of Prince John, while Aran Davison (as Much Miller), Brad Felton (as Little John) and Jake Hildebrand (as Will Scathlock) developed a good-humoured rapport as Robin’s ‘merry men’.
Good ensemble playing, too, from Michelle Collier and Clive Ramroop (notable as aristocratic victims of the outlaws), and Dianna Harvey, Erik Kavanagh, Brynn La Croix and Arjun Panesar, each supplying ample proof of the old adage that “there are no small parts – only small actors.”
Costuming by Linda Weston and Gale Smith was nicely evocative; Breanne Harmon’s set was both artistic and practical, and Harry Armstrong’s sound and Sam Bird’s lighting was well up to the high standard set by Beach House technical director Geoff McEvoy.