Robinson Crusoe

Date 1st February 2019
Society New Mills Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society
Venue New Mills Arts Theatre
Type of Production Pantomime
Director Rob Brittles
Musical Director Tim Walker
Choreographer Cathryn Yates


Author: Kevin Proctor

There have been several topics where it’s been necessary to repeat myself through several pantomime reviews this season but what sets this one apart is the choice of story.

Many societies are not brave enough to stray from the top seven pantomime titles (Cinderella, Aladdin, Snow White, Jack & The Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and Dick Whittington) which many groups present on a tediously predictable loop but from my perspective, not that I’d ever expect a society to choose a show for my benefit, is how it’s completely refreshing to see a title that strays off-piste!  

Pantomime productions of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ are a rarity but it used to very much be part of the panto cannon with what is regarded as the first true English novel, published in 1719, written by Daniel Defoe (of ‘Moll Flanders’ fame).

I’m regularly faced with a distasteful glare when the topic of pantomime comes up amongst my group of friends (cue the smallest violin) as I’m of the minority who adores the genre and will always continue to fight its corner. It’s a custom staple in our theatrical heritage and what’s more important is that it’s the sole genre managing to keep so many of our theatre’s doors open. Pantomime has been a fixture in my Christmas must-do list since childhood and there’s certainly no chance of that changing anytime soon!

No other production genre can give you that warm hug sensation when seeing those familiar faces up on stage each year amongst an auditorium full of laughter with the chaos on stage with the sense of camaraderie between the actors and the audience. It’s magical!

Taking a look at the major pantomimes throughout the UK in recent years you’ll see men playing the Prince, Dick, Jack and Aladdin. Panto trends have moved on and it’s rare these days to see girls taking the principal boy roles, there are several examinations of why that is but it’s amateur theatre which is – for now, at least – keeping this tradition alive.

Lisa Quin takes the role of our titular hero, Robinson, in a performance that stands strong if a tad tentative at times. Lisa certainly looked the part and maintained the composure of the title character.

Some may ask how a pantomime can be made from a story which only features two characters, well, our principal line up was far from being in short supply! The comic role, Nutty Nick, was in the highly capable talents of Stewart Bowden in this knockout performance. Getting his dog, Fief, in on the action to perform tricks was genius and incredibly well received.

The most standout choice behind the casting of this panto was how the role of the dame was given to a woman. Excitingly controversial! Yes, she was lofty, loud, brash and in no way did she do anything wrong. Is it enough to say… “it should be played by a man because that’s tradition?” perhaps not, but it does pose an interesting debate nonetheless. Pauline put in a worthy performance as the Dame and she didn’t fail to have us all laughing where we should’ve been laughing. Being picky, yes…opening night hesitations were evident when she addressed the audience in parts but that’s all I can fault when evaluating her performance. I absolutely support the idea to shake things up a bit, let people have a go at a different iconic role to enjoy and get a feel for it, it showcases the versatility of your membership, fantastic! Pauline certainly has comedic skill and that should absolutely be utilised, without question, but - and it’s a big but – for me, panto relies heavily on tradition. Something new and out of the box was attempted here which is brave and ought to be commended, now, call me ‘stuck in the mud’, I’ll accept that and I’ll admit to being a traditionalist when it comes to pantomime and I will accept that this is more my own hang up than anything else, but I’d much rather see a man as the Dame.

What did excel from this casting shake up was how suited Darren Cooper is to the villain, the evil characters in an Alan P Frayn panto script often surpass the others, I’ve found that they’re where he comes into his own. Darren relished in the baddie essentials as this Captain Cut Throat and equally shone with the comedic elements too, a terrific portrayal which hit all the right marks!

A prosperous feature to this production came from the youth cast. What terrific energy they brought, igniting the stage as an ensemble. I’ve never seen a ‘Pirates Of Penzance’ number performed with such verve! Youth members also got the opportunity to take on some supporting principal roles too, Jake Hornsey impressed as the fearless native, Hocus Pocus, performing a terrific rock solo and one regularly featured young girl amongst the chorus shone especially bright.

Musically we were under the supervision of Tim Walker, the overture was created around recognisable hornpipes (Pugwash and Barnacle Bill themes etc) which wholly set the mood of this swashbuckling adventure with the band getting in on the action donning pirate accessories too. The glory of panto is how musical numbers can be personalised to suit the abilities of the principal cast, a benefit that’s rarely taken advantage of. Impressive singers should be given the opportunity to showcase their talent and those who you’d say singing was not their strong point, shouldn’t get as much, if any.

Cathryn Yates yielded ample sequences as the shows choreographer and evidently enjoyed working with the more experienced movers which certainly paid off delivering some well executed dance pieces. More attention could have been given to tidy the full company routines as some of the less confident movers were exposed for not quite knowing what they were supposed to be doing which is arguably the responsibility of the individual(s) and that’s quite likely to be the case but nonetheless, and however unfortunate it may seem, the buck stops with the choreographer with such an issue.    

Pantomimes are a mammoth venture to get on their feet and ought to challenge every department of a theatre. I will always favour a panto which dares to push the innuendo as far as possible, I found this area relatively tame at this production. I’m not saying we should be given pure smut, but clever double entendre is a staple for any pantomime. I have no doubt that this group know their audiences and can estimate how far to take it, but, as pointed out above, panto trends have moved on and innuendo that’s played too safe doesn’t have the same impact it used to and can be the biggest giveaway of how dated the script is. Modern pantomimes push it further, I’m not by any means suggesting that pure filth needs to be on display, but a good panto finds the balance with at least one or two gags that proffer a cheeky shocker that rides over the heads of the youngsters.

It cannot be denied that overall, all things considered, this was a joyous pantomime! ‘Robinson Crusoe’ successfully provided giggles amongst a plethora of showstopping numbers with a terrifically heart-warming community atmosphere.