Sunday, 23 December 2012

Swashbuckling fun with a Marxian perspective - Robinson Crusoe at Birmingham Hippodrome

From Saturday 15th December 2012 to Sunday 27th January 2013

Birmingham Hippodrome continues its reputation as Britain's capital of pantomime with this year's lavish treat of heroes, dames and magical adventure.

This week Spaghetti Gazette editor and his daughter Alice joined the audience for a large dose of festive entertainment at Birmingham Hippodrome

Robinson Crusoe may not be the obvious choice of a children's story to mould into the unique format of pantomime. That is, if you can even call Daniel Defoe's 1719 narrative autobiography of a man who finds himself castaway on a remote tropical island for 28 years, a children's story in the first place. I was therefore interested to see how this potentially quite dry work of 18th century literature about a Puritan survivalist wrestling with his conscience whilst building a fortified homestead out of coconut trees (a work of such ethical depth that  Karl Marx critiqued it in Das Kapital) would be reinterpreted into the glittery, all-dancing-all-singing, slap-stick, audience-participatory experience of festive pantomime.

In actual fact, Robinson Crusoe was first performed as pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1796 and has featured up there in the annual panto top ten alongside the more obvious stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin and Mother Goose ever since. The storyline therefore has more than a substantial history of adaptation and re-adaptation into this theatrical format, spanning over two hundred years. So whilst the unlikely classical literature purist in the audience may well come away scratching their heads, aghast at the prospect of what Defoe or Marx might have made of it all, everybody else can expect to be richly entertained by all of the ingredients which make pantomime no more and no less than two hours of outlandish musical-comedy escapism.

The main stars of this year's Hippodrome pantomime are Brian Conley ('fresh' from The Jungle - given his widely reported personal and health problems) as Crusoe and Lesley Joseph (neighbour-from-hell Dorien Green in Birds of a Feather) as The Enchantress of the Ocean (this character being our first clue that the story is about to deviate from the Defoe original).

Both are consummate and well-established pantomime actors and if we had any pre-show concerns about Conley's emotional or psychological fitness to leap out from behind a curtain and keep a few hundred Brummies guffawing, clapping and cheering for two hours, following his premature departure from I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here with a 'mystery illness', then they are soon layed to rest as Conley immediately demonstrates it is business as usual in an environment in which he is absolutely at home and from which he most definitely does not need rescuing - even if his character Crusoe does.

Conley's facial expressions and Norman Wisdomesque idiosyncratic antics would be enough to keep an audience amused and entertained even without the backdrop of swashbuckling theatre. What this year's panto lacks slightly in its slimmed down cast of big names, it makes up for with bags of laughter, plenty of audience participation and the customary array of extravagant costumes and amazing stage sets and effects for which Birmingham Hippodrome continues to the raise the bar.

The script writers (Michael Harrison and Brian Conley) have included plentiful local references which provoke whooping declarations of familiarity from the audience. There is even a short video film on a drop-down screen at the start of the show featuring local landmarks such as the Bullring and Villa Park. If Conley didn't make it as king of The Jungle, on his return to Birmingham Hippodrome he certainly lays claim to the affections of the citizens of the West Midlands.

Conley and Joseph are complemented by a talented and competent supporting cast including Kathryn Rooney as Polly, Gavin Wood as Blackheart the Pirate, James Paterson as The Major General and Earl R Perkins as Friday. A pantomime would be nothing without its dame, and in this year's show, northern accented Andrew Ryan plays an aptly extravagant and outrageous Mrs Crusoe.

As always, Birmingham Hippodrome delivers the goods for the Christmas holiday season and Robinson Crusoe is as magical, funny and entertaining as its long line of Brummie panto predecessors stretching back to Beryl Reid and Reg Dixon in Jack & The Beanstalk back in 1957.

For Marxist scholars out there who may be expecting this year's Hippodrome pantomime to focus on the underlying theme of how Crusoe's experiences on his island represent the inherent economic value of labour over capital, I would only wish to add the following line of argument: 

"Oh no it doesn't!"

"Oh yes it does!"

I'll leave you to make your own mind up on that ...but if double-entendres about buccaneers be your thing me hearties - then get yourself and the family down to Birmingham Hippodrome before 27th January.

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