Robin Hood and the Major Oak

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By Deborah McAndrew
Derby Theatre

Robin Hood and the Major Oak is the fourth production from Derby Theatre to have integrated British Sign Language – and this is the most ambitious to date.

Two of the actors, Adam Bassett who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham and Mia Ward who takes the role of Maid Marian, are deaf. A 10-strong ensemble features deaf and hearing performers. Inclusivity at its best.

Derby Theatre could be forgiven if it had copied some producers and gone down the road of presenting a pantomime as its Easter show – but Robin Hood and the Major Oak cannot be slotted into that category. There are a couple of occasions when Guy of Gisborne clip-clops around the stage, Monty Python-style, to the sound of two coconut halves being knocked together. And on one occasion on press night, when the Merry Men are looking for Robin Hood, a young member of the audience shouts out “He’s behind you!”

Those are the only occasions when the audience’s attention is taken away from the acting which is typical of shows directed by the theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham: first-rate and commendable.

Phillipa Russell (Much), Oraine Johnson (Little John), Craig Painting (Robin Hood), Mia Ward (Maid Marian), Abey Bradbury (Scarlett) and Laura Goulden (Tuck) [images: Pamela Raith]

As the Sheriff Bassett is outraged when Robin escapes from prison and he is full of pain when suffering from toothache and other ailments. Ward has the audience on her side as Marian, faced with the prospect of marrying the loathsome Gisbourne until she is unmasked as a spy in the Sheriff’s castle.

Two actors speak the Sheriff’s and Marian’s words, Becky Barry as Roger the Reeve and Laura Goulden as Tuck driving the story on and taking every opportunity to inject humour into it.

Craig Painting gives a strong performance as Robin Hood, a trusted leader who has a conscience despite being a criminal while John-Holt Roberts shines as Adam Aquarius who has weird, unpalatable potions. But even he is unable to get the Sheriff to kiss donkeys to cure toothache.

Phillipa Russell comes into her own as light-fingered Much while Joanna Simpkins shows her musical talents as Alana Dale, the musician who gets a gig at the castle and ends up joining Robin’s band.

Dominic Rye (Guy of Gisbourne) and Becky Barry (Roger the Reeve)

Deborah McAndrew’s script takes a while to get going: not a lot happens in the first half when Robin is captured, gets away – much to the Sheriff’s vexation – and returns to the forest. A couple of unforgettable, medieval-type songs, although played impeccably, hardly raise the spirits.

But the second half takes off, with Adam Aquarius telling the Sheriff that Robin Hood is invincible only while the Major Oak lives. The Sheriff vows to find and fell the tree – but good prevails in the end.

Robin Hood and the Major Oak can be seen as highlighting poverty, social justice and climate change. Never mind the underlying themes of wealth distribution, standing up to authority and taking the law into your own hands: Robin Hood and the Major Oak is a good, largely enjoyable show which is suitable for all the family. A pity, then, that despite the commendable performances on stage, the first part is a little pedestrian and the songs are instantly forgettable.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website

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