Guitars, saxophones and drum kits aren’t normally the first thing that spring to mind when you think of pantomime but, for Ipswich audiences, the New Wolsey’s Rock ‘n’ Roll panto has become something of a tradition over the last 10 years. Over that past decade the format has occasionally seemed to run out of steam, with the need to shoehorn a plethora of rock and roll classics into the script becoming somewhat formulaic. However, this year’s offering of Robin Hood and The Babes In The Wood is a welcome return to form for the format, integrating the music into the production rather than the afterthought it has sometimes seemed in the past. The jokes may be as corny as ever, the plot as convoluted as you would expect and the characters as absurd as they can be but its all delivered with wit and fun that excuses the sheer absurdity of it all.
Of course if you sit and try and analyse a panto plot you’re probably in the wrong show. It’s not Shakespeare but there again it doesn’t pretend to be. The evil Sherriff of Nottingham not only has plans to wed his ward, Maid Marian, he’s got his eyes on the wealth of his niece’s fortune. Robin Hood has other ideas, wanting to wed Marion when she comes of age and rid the country of the evil Sherriff. Add in an assortment of incompetent henchman and a deliciously over the top nanny and you have a recipe for comedic mayhem.
Peter Rowe’s script packs in the comedy thick and fast, and though a handful of the jokes, unlike Robin’s arrows, miss their mark, there’s enough that find their target to keep all ages laughing. Rob Salmon’s direction keeps up the frenetic pace and allows the comedy to shine through. Musical numbers ranging from Meatloaf through Cyndi Lauper to Sheryl Crow ensure there’s enough familiarity for all ages and often add a surreal commentary on the action.
The multi-instrumentalist company have great fun with the material but there are a couple of performances that stand out from the crowd. Shirley Darroch ditches her traditional New Wolsey fairy wings to give her Maid Marian a feisty independence, while Tim Jackson goes for the sympathy vote with put-upon servant Numbskull.
It is, however, the show-stealing performance from Will Kenning as the gloriously over the top Nanny Nellie Nightnurse that takes the acting honours. Although a grotesque creation, Kenning’s Nellie is conversely strangely believable, whether chasing every available man or berating children leaving their seats to visit the toilet this is a ‘woman’ you wouldn’t want to mess with.
There are some small issues that would benefit from attention. The structure does seem slightly like two self-contained acts that, although they share the same characters seem like independent stories. For a family-friendly show the production would also benefit from shaving perhaps 15 minutes from its running time but, as the run progresses, it’s likely to tighten up anyway.
Okay it’s nothing new or radical, and those who have seen previous Rock n Roll will recognise elements from past productions, but it’s a successful format so why change it? For those young children in the audience watching, it’s a thrilling and enticing introduction to theatre and a fun start to the festive season.
Photo: Will Kenning as Nellie Nightnurse, picture by Mike Kwasniak