REVIEW: Robin Hood

What better way to cheer us up on a wet and windy February evening than a bit of panto fun, and with Robin Hood, written and directed by Kate Burrows and Peter Marcus, Phoenix Players gave us fun in spades.

Whether or not Robin Hood actually existed is a matter of conjecture, but we are all familiar with the story that has evolved over the centuries and it proved a good basis for a panto, with Robin and his forces of good fighting the forces of evil represented by the Sheriff of Nottingham and King John. Naturally, Robin and his friends triumph in the end when King Richard returns from the crusades, restores law and order to the land and all ends happily ever after.

Kate and Peter’s script was fast paced and full of bad jokes (one so obscure it had to be explained to me!) with lots of opportunities for audience participation. The principals were well chosen to make the most of the script. Sophie Nickerson was a calm and commanding Robin, well matched with Sophie Rowsell as the bubbly, enthusiastic Much. Chris Wrein made a magnificently evil Sheriff, striding around the stage threatening the audience, and he was well supported by Irene Skelton as King John, who could put the Sheriff down with just a look – wonderful! Both exploited their height differences to good effect too. Kevin Stokes, complete with beard, was a strong dame, Nurse Nessie, with some great costumes and a nice line in corny jokes, but was, I felt, a little underused by the script. The Sheriff’s Guards, This and That (great names and the source of much confusion) were played to the hilt by Tyrone Baptiste and Ivy Burrows. Both acted just the right degree of stupidity and were well versed in handling a live audience, and Ivy’s physicality and stage presence was wonderful to watch. Juliet Hasker made a suitably alluring Maid Marian and Jo Webb, in striking costume, saved the day as King Richard.

The principals were well supported by the company of merry ‘men’ and I must compliment the younger members particularly – the Robin Hoodies – for their confidence and characterisation.

The costumes were well thought-out, appropriate and colourful and were complimented by the lighting and a well-made set and good props. Scene changes took place rapidly (if a little noisily on the first night) behind the curtain while the action distracted us in front. Sound effects were great and well-timed. The songs were well chosen to be relevant to the plot and the music was provided by soundtracks. While they were of good quality, I felt they made life a little difficult for the singers at times.

I don’t normally comment on the programme in my reports, but this one was exceptional. Colourful, informative and innovative in its layout and style – a thoroughly professional job – nice page on NODA too! Well done to Confetti Canon Productions (yes, I eventually found the credit!) – you should advertise your services more widely.

By their reaction at the curtain call, the whole audience, adults and children alike, had obviously enjoyed themselves. My companion and I emerged from the theatre back into the drizzle agreeing that we’d both had a great time – what more can you ask of a piece of theatre? Well done everyone involved.

REVIEW: A Double Helping of Sherlock

It is really encouraging to see local groups writing and performing their own material. A Double Helping of Sherlock comprised two one-act plays adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels: “The Man With The Twisted Lip”, adapted and directed by Valerie Bird and “The Dying Detective”, adapted and directed by Daniel McCrohon. Conan Doyle’s connections with Southsea of course add extra interest.

“The Man With The Twisted Lip” came first. This was Valerie Bird’s first play, but you would not have known it – the dialogue flowed well and the action moved along at quite a pace. Geoff Pye was excellent as the Narrator - speaking from the side of the stage – and this was a good device for explaining a lot of the plot and keeping the story moving.

“The Dying Detective” came after the interval and was the more accomplished of the two plays, reflecting a stronger original story and probably Daniel’s greater experience in writing and directing. Although the plays had some actors in common, the casting was completely different from the first, and Chris Wrein gave us a very charismatic Holmes, matched nicely with Geoff Pye’s constantly bemused Watson.

The set was of a high standard and used for both plays with additions and changes of furniture and props to indicate different locations. The nature of the “Twisted Lip” story required many changes of scene and although the changes were carried out efficiently behind the curtain while the Narrator was speaking, they were a little distracting. With fewer scene changes, the continuity of “The Dying Detective” flowed a lot better.

Costumes used in both plays were good, especially for the ladies, giving a good feel for the period. Lighting and effects were used to good effect and innovative use was made of the auditorium as an alternative entrance to the stage. Pre-setting the beggar (nice performance from Keving Stokes) from the first play in the audience, scowling at us as we came in, was an inspired touch.

I must commend whoever produced the good quality, stylish and informative programme (sadly, they omitted their own name). An excellent example of how amateur theatre can often out-perform the professional world.

Well done Phoenix Players – you had obviously put a lot of effort and dedication into writing and staging these two Sherlock Holmes stories, sticking very much to the spirit of the originals and making for a most entertaining evening.

REVIEW: Summertime Music Hall: A Journey Through the Ages

Phoenix Players’ Summertime Music Hall represented quite a few ‘firsts’: first time directing for Rose Stubbington; the first time the group have presented a show in August - a sadly neglected month in the Portsmouth theatre calendar; and the first time I’ve attended one of their shows as their NODA rep., although I have seen them perform many times in the past.

As the programme states, this was not a traditional music hall, but more of a gallop through the significant events of recent history (back to the start of the twentieth century) showing how people have responded through music and culture. As with traditional music hall, we were treated to a very eclectic mix of songs, dance, sketches, monologues, comedy and pathos. This was very much an ensemble piece that gave everyone in the company a chance to shine - including their budding writers, who produced what were, in my view, some of the best pieces in the show. The excellent quality programme, which was full of interesting information, listed those who took part on stage, but not the (many) roles they undertook – probably the right approach in a show of this kind, even if it does make my job more difficult! So, as it was difficult to attribute some items to people, I won’t name any names.

As well as introducing the pieces, the Chairmen, well, man and woman, provided much amusement along the way and many interesting and surprising facts. There were so many items I could comment on, I can only pick out a few that particularly stood out for me. In no particular order:

The World War One sequence based on real letters to and from home was well written, well presented and most moving. The two monologues (“Tillie the Twenties’ Soubrette”, and “A Naughty Little Poem”) and the “Networking” sketch were highly amusing and delivered with great aplomb. The Memory of 9/11, incorporating the cast’s own experiences of the event, was spellbinding and emotional. “Stand Up” (from Made in Dagenham) was well sung, and it was good to see this often overlooked but highly significant event being remembered.  The dance “Electricity” from Billy Elliot was beautifully performed, with such graceful and fluid movements. The live guitar music was excellent – well played and sung. The Harry Potter Puppets sketch was a brilliant and inspired piece. “The Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”, which can be quite a tedious song, was lifted no end by the use of the pictures, and the antics of the chairman’s “helpers”.

The stage set throughout was sensibly minimal with props brought on as required, allowing rapid changes and keeping the pace of the show nice and fast. Lighting too was excellent. Costumes were generally good too and appropriate for the scenes. A slight negative was that some of the choreography could have been a little tighter.  Also some of the pre-recorded music ended rather abruptly, leaving us wondering whether that was the end or not, and backing tracks can be very unforgiving if you lose your way.

Overall this was a hugely entertaining evening and my companion and I left talking enthusiastically about all the highlights. Well done to directors Kate and Rose for assembling such a great variety of pieces and well done to the cast for performing them so well. I hope that you had sufficient audience numbers to justify making a summer show a regular occurrence in Southsea.