Robin Hood (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)
Writers Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman reunite with Kerry Michael to bring their classic Christmas panto to Stratford East
The home-grown panto team at Stratford East rarely disappoints, and this year's Robin Hood is one of the best ever, full of paper horses, a big Chinese dragon, an archery contest, a rapping Robin who's nearly made Marion and a soignée Nurse from Derek Elroy who's become an original and very funny masculine dame.
Written, as usual, by Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman (who leads a three-piece band in the pit), and directed by Kerry Michael, the show starts with a sing-a-long ("She'll be comin' round the mountain"), develops into a political struggle between a camp King Richard (Ashley Campbell) and a louche, couldn't-care-less Prince John (Michael Bertenshaw) and an archery contest with bull's-eye balloons.
Robin may well be robbin' the rich to give it up to the poor, but the poor are right on this theatre's doorstep in the not too fictional land of London's most deprived borough of StratEastHam. This conflict between civic aspiration and plebeian dissatisfaction runs like the lettering through seaside rock and expresses the very soul of this wonderful neighbourhood theatre, from its big noisy bar to its upper circle and crowd of first-time theatre youngsters.
Nadia Albina, recently Nerissa and the Duke of Venice with the RSC at the other Stratford theatre by the Avon, is no Marion to be messed with, while Robin's mates, Titch and Tuck (Ashley Joseph and Geraint Rhys Edwards), add individual moves to choreographer Omar Okai's dirty dancing, indeed referencing Dirty Dancing the movie.
The costumes are a riot of street clothes with medieval trimmings, stripes and chequers, and the design - by Harriet Barsby, with Jenny Tiramani - a playground of papery walls and landscapes over which the cast scrawl with character crayons and vocal variations, Bertenshaw nonchalantly ripping at the pictures and Alex Chang decorating with falsetto virtuosity in the ensemble numbers.
Robin's merry men are both hairy and fairy, with Robin himself (Oliver Wellington) leading by explosive, nifty-footed example, Tuck much more a secular hard man (with a soft centre) than a roly-poly friar, and Richard Sumitro an hilariously pliable and weak-minded Sheriff.
It's always the case, such is the atmosphere down Stratford East way, that the show itself becomes some sort of interruption to an ongoing party. But, this year, the party revs up several new gears while it takes to the stage.
Robin Hood runs at Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 23 January.