Review by Daz Gale
As Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre continue their summer season, a new piece of writing is sandwiched in between two more established productions. If you’re going to bring something completely new to such a prestigious stage, why not take a legendary character and flip it on its head. That’s exactly what has been done with Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written. Bringing new twists to existing characters is a risky business (Bad Cinderella anyone?) so would this do justice to the existing stories surrounding the hooded character?
Most people must have a familiarisation with the story of Robin Hood. Whether it was one of the several movie adaptations, the recurring nightmares over a certain Bryan Adams song being inescapable, the Disney film or any number of adaptations across different forms of media. Originally depicted in English folklore, Robin is known for robbing from the rich and giving them to the poor – think of him as the antithesis to members of Parliament in that respect. While each iteration of Robin Hood may vary slightly, the essentials are still the same, making him instantly recognisable whether he is wearing a hood, tights or anything else.
Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written challenges everything you think you know about the character from their gender to origin to even what they wear (no tights this time). This is addressed fairly quickly in the show when the most recognisable version of the character bounces on to the stage only to be told they’re not telling his story, thus beginning a number of moments where the fourth wall is shot with a bow and arrow and completely shattered. Written by Carl Grose, it is an admirable attempt at trying something new even if it doesn’t quite manage to pull it off, which brings me to a bit of a disclaimer.
If you have read any of my reviews before or interacted with me, you’ll be aware I pride myself on positivity with the firm belief all reviews should be constructive, not cruel. I live to lift theatre and the amazing creatives that work in it while hoping to give something small back to an industry that has been a real lifeline for me. I never take any pleasure in shooting a show down and look for the silver lining in every show. I have to be honest now and say I won’t have many positives to say about this show, as sad as that makes me. As a whole, Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written is extremely flawed so bear with me why I attempt to address why this show failed to connect with me on a personal level and why I had quite an extremely negative reaction to it – something that very rarely happens.
To start with a positive, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a stunning venue. I always enjoy my repeated trips there each summer and am always looking forward to my next one. There is something incredibly special about seeing any show there thanks to its beautiful setting. Robin Hood is no exception to that, with an immediately decent looking set design by Chiara Stephenson. There is always an extra element to the shows second act as the lighting effect can be used strikingly as the sky gets darker, and there are some glorious moments from Zoe Spurrs lighting,
The biggest problem with Robin Hood is that none of the elements blend well together. Every aspect of the production feels at odds with the others, almost like every creative involved had a completely different vision for what the show should be. Rather than agree and attempt to compromise, they all ran with it to create a show whose only consistency is in how confused and messy it is. While writer Carl Grose has form for previous work (including the stunning The Grinning Man) the writing here never quite lands. Tonally, the show is a bit all over the place and left me wondering who it was aimed for. I had a similar issue with last year’s 101 Dalmatians with humour and cartoonish characters seemingly designed to entertain children are mixed in with expletives. The entire intent of this show was never made clear and felt like a particularly under-rehearsed pantomime in parts.
Similarly problematic is the direction which lacks, well, direction. There are some great moments to be had in the multi-level set design, complete with impressive revolve – but these are never used to a good enough effect. We are repeatedly left with cast members walking around in circles, chasing and being chased endlessly and climbing up and down visibly to the next level – usually when they at not part of the current scene and end up distracting from the action taking place. The combination of the writing and the direction creates an impossible situation for the cast who find themselves unable to save the show thanks to the hand they have been dealt.
I’m sure the cast are extremely talented in their own right but it is hard to single out a performer who broke the mould thanks to the limitations they faced due to the writing. It also felt like each of them was in a different show to the others. This was none the more noticeable than on Ira Mandela Siobhan’s panto villain turn as Gisburne. I felt for him having to play the role straight while being forced to deliver some inexplicably ridiculous actions. Stephanie Marion Fayerman gets a number of laughs as Betty but ultimately her character feels like she doesn’t belong. Ellen Robertson plays a big part in the show and is less affected than the others as her character is less comedic. This is a show where the funnier the role, the harder it is to pull of to the desired effect.
The use of former iterations of Robin Hood is a great touch and provides the biggest laugh out loud moment of the evening when three different Robins interact. However, this is far too underused and should have seen them observing from the outside a lot more but rarely interfering. This could have helped bridge the inconsistencies in the show to create something that flows a bit better and tonally makes more sense.
The use of music in the show is also perplexing, with characters randomly singing in moments where it feels like they shouldn’t. This creates a jarring feeling and adds to the feeling of not knowing what exactly this show is trying to be. As well as these bizarre musical moments, the show also features a truly unforgivable rendition of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Yes, the audience may laugh at the ridiculousness of the moment but it’s a cheap (or cheep?) laugh and one that should never have made it to the stage. You may also be disappointed to learn ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’ fails to make an appearance… though there is Clannad at least.
One decent aspect of Robin Hood is in its use of illusions. Arrows appearing from out of nowhere and mostly cleverly done, though perhaps not always as quick and smooth as they ought to be. It still provides a refreshingly impressive element to the show, although there is a bit of an over-reliance on them, meaning the novelty of this trick wears off after several occurrences.
It would be an understatement to say I found Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written frustrating. Seeing the talents of so many fantastic people wasted on that stage felt disrespectful to me. They deserved better. Similarly, the creatives involved in this project have done some exceptional things between them so I have no doubt over the quality of their work. The issue here is that their combined ideas didn’t blend together, leaving one of the most confused pieces of theatre I have ever witnessed. As always, please don’t take this review as fact as this is just my opinion and I’m sure others will take a different view. It’s always worth getting a ticket to make your own mind up and if you think my review is completely wrong, I always welcome that conversation. For me personally, however, Robin Hood was a show whose riches were few and far between and overall was poorly executed.
Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written plays at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 22nd July. Tickets from https://openairtheatre.com/production/robin-hood
Photos by Pamela Raith