ROBINSON CRUSOE & THE CARIBBEAN PIRATES
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 18th December, 2012
If you were on the quiz show Pointless and asked to list traditional pantomimes, I’d wager that Robinson Crusoe would not spring immediately to mind, but here it is. It was in fact refined and panto-ised by the king of pantomime scripts, the late great John Morley many, many moons ago, bringing in elements of Dick Whittington (the shipwreck) and Aladdin (the baddie needs something from the hero in order to reach some hidden treasure). This latest mutation emphasises the pirates Morley introduced, no doubt to cash in on a recent popular film franchise. It deffo ain’t Defoe.
None of this matters with this production. The story is incidental, amounting to nothing more than some loosely linked scenes. If you try to follow what’s going on, you lose the plot very quickly. This production is all about its big star, Brian Conley, an irrepressible force of showbiz who appropriates pantomime as a showcase for his talents. He appears as the eponymous Crusoe, acknowledging from the start in a hilarious video sequence the similarities to the Buttons he gave us in this venue last year. His crooning is interrupted by a tumble off-stage into the pit – This is this year’s fad, evidently. Conley is a very watchable, amusing entertainer and no expense has been spared, it seems, to support his shtick. Corny jokes are amplified by specially-made props, and there are some theatrical effects (Conley is shrunk in a magician’s cabinet, and carried in a cage by a gorilla) that are delightful.
He is matched in stage presence by Lesley Joseph in the good fairy role, the Enchantress of the Sea. When they appear together, it is clear they are enjoying themselves immensely. Joseph brings the right amount of camp diva to proceedings.
Audience participation is taken to a new level. Conley wheels on a TV camera and turns it on the crowd. Suddenly punters’ faces are projected large on a screen. He singles out a man to insult. It made me squirm in a relieved-it’s-not-me way and reminded me of a show I saw earlier this year that consisted of little more than this kind of abuse. Later a woman is brought on stage to join in with a dance number – you guessed it, Gangnam Style, this year’s Japanese knotweed of a song. It’s good-natured cheekiness rather than any aim to offend – that is how Conley operates. I didn’t like a couple of throwaway lines that are out of place in a show like this. More palatable is the moment when Conley interacts with children, for the sing-along number, confirming him as an all-round popular entertainer, quick-witted and energetic.
Gavin Woods impresses as the villain of the piece, battling to stay in character as Blackheart the pirate in the face of Conley’s comic capers. It seems that most of the plot development falls to him; his gloating monologues keep us in touch with what the hell is going on. Kathryn Rooney as love interest Polly earns her money just by getting half-eaten apple spat on her face every performance.
As ever, the Hippodrome delivers spectacle and wonder on the grandest scale in the country. There is a scary sea monster and, inexplicably, a flying car. The set pieces and production numbers dazzle with an extravagance you don’t see in other pantomimes and Conley is correct to acknowledge the hard work of the Hippodrome crew in setting up and running a show of this magnitude.
It struck me that no matter the spectacle, it is the snot and fart jokes and the traditional pantomime routines and patter that work the best. The prime example of this is Andrew Ryan as the dame, Mrs Crusoe. Here we have a seasoned and skilled performer who works every line and every bit of business, the perfect complement to Conley’s anarchy.
I think anarchy is the key word. The show is organised chaos. Without a familiar plot to keep us anchored in events (compared to that most tightly-plotted of pantos, Cinderella, for example) we don’t know what might happen next but it certainly is great fun finding out in this theme park ride of a show.