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The Theatreguide.London Review

Union Theatre  Spring 2018

What do you do with a fifty-year-old flop? One answer is to embrace everything that made it fail and carry it even further in the faith that modern audiences have more appetite for parody, high spirits, theatrical in-jokes and just plain silliness. 

And while I doubt if this new production would succeed in the West End, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable fringe-level evening. 

Lionel Bart's 1965 musical was meant to be a parody of the Robin Hood myth, with Robin and his Merry Men, lacking a Maid Marion, reduced to rescuing the local nymphomaniac from the baddies.

It went through multiple writers, directors and producers on its way to London, with Bart eventually taking on all those roles, bankrupting himself in the process, before the underwritten and underrehearsed mess opened to scathing reviews and barely a month's run. 

In 2008 the Bart estate commissioned a wholly new book from Julian Woolford, to use some of the original songs and some others by Bart, and it is that version we have here. 

This time around a standard save-Marion plot is compounded by the fact that Robin has 'lost his twang,' what Austin Powers might call his mojo, his hero's skill and elan, and so everyone else has constantly to save him. 

In a subplot, civilian Much wanders into the forest and is invited to join the Merries, but since they all know they live in a musical comedy and he hates musicals, he hesitates. (It is he who will end up with the somewhat domesticated nymphomaniac.)

I should add that, with the exception of Much and possibly Robin, all the male characters, good and evil, are as camp as a Judy Garland fan club and immune to the attractions of the female characters, a point someone makes by suggesting a more appropriate synonym for Merry.

So, combining everyone's awareness they're in a musical with their merriment, everyone is likely at the slightest opportunity to burst into brief musical quotations (evidently just short enough to avoid paying royalties) from Cabaret, Les Miserables, Chorus Line and a half-dozen other musicals, with verbal references to a dozen more I stopped counting somewhere around Blondel. 

Alan-A-Dale spends the play noodling on his guitar trying to write what we spot early on is a Lionel Bart non-theatre hit we associate with Cliff Richard, and the level of wit is best suggested by this several-times-repeated gag: 'Who is he?' - 'Friar Tuck' 'Try a what?'

If I haven't scared you off, let me reassure you that, taken in the right spirit, most of this works, the general silliness carrying the show over its dubious patches. And the songs, if totally unmemorable, are at least adequate. 

Bryan Hodgson's production is at its best when the cast are in motion, since slowing down gives us too much opportunity to see how thin the material is. Fortunately choreographer Mitchell Harper regularly fills the small stage with spirited and imaginative dance numbers.

Based on this show and other productions I've seen here, the new Union Theatre may be the worst space in London for a musical, since those few cast members who can project their voices over a piano and guitar find their diction echoing into muddy incomprehensibility. 

Forget the songs, enjoy the dances, go along with the silly jokes, and you'll have a fringe evening's worth of fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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