It has quickly become apparent, having recently seen Illyria’s productions of Pride and Prejudice and Twelfth Night at the same venue, that they specialise in turning the fact they have such small casts to their advantage, with bold choices in characterisation and witty costuming adding to the entertainment.
The same is true with this highly enjoyable production of Robin Hood.
Guy Clark is (sensibly) allowed to focus almost exclusively on bringing Robin Hood to vibrant life, with the rest of the cast make easy work of portraying, alongside their principal parts, three or four other characters each.
In their central roles, Nicholas Lee gives a great turn as the almost Panto-villainesque Prince John; Nathan McGowan brings real presence to his Little John; Rachel O’Hare is a pleasingly feisty Marian; whilst Isobelle Pippin effectively splits most of her stage time between a devious Sheriff of Nottingham, and a surprisingly spry Friar Tuck.
There was one (very fleeting) point when I wondered if one of the actors was changing costume as a disguise, or doing so in order to play a different character; but that momentary and minor confusion took nothing away from another very enjoyable ensemble piece.
Another of Illyria’s many strengths is finding the perfect balance between honouring the source material, and finding ways to prevent this hampering their abundant theatricality. Whilst Robin Hood is overall on a par with the other Illyria shows I’ve seen, this is the one area I sense might bear even greater fruit. It’s not so much that anything’s lacking; more the sense that the show is mere millimetres away from being fine-tuned into out-and-out greatness.
It would only take a handful more songs for this to be a fabulous, fully-fledged musical, for instance. There’s certainly enough quality in the music – the repeated motif of Don’t Try This At Home in particular showcases the composer’s whimsical side; whilst The Long Bright Day is Done (with lyrics taken from Tennyson’s c1870 play The Foresters: Robin Hood and Maid Marian) is more traditional, but every bit as fitting.
Given how well-judged the use of music was, I’d made a mental note to check the name of the composer. It turns out to be none other than Oliver Gray, who has also done a fine job of adapting the piece from various sources, and perhaps an ever finer job of Directing the show.
I did wonder if the verse might benefit from a little judicious pruning. As mentioned in the programme, there are ‘great swathes’ of 600-year-old poetry included in its original form in the script. This works really well when (for example) the verse is used as a bridge between scenes, but not quite so well when it feels like a form of narration that merely tells us what we’re already seeing and hearing.
In fact, I applaud the artistic decision to honour what has gone before; but (it seems to me at least) the show is at its strongest when Grey bends the source material to his own (excellent) theatrical tastes, and brings Illyria’s own specific and considerable talents to the fore.
But this is a minor quibble, given how often Illyria’s magical stagecraft – as exemplified by, but not limited to the brilliant way the archery is handled – is given the room to fly unencumbered.