Every year (in theory) the Rodmell Stage Company produces a pantomime which has become Rodmell’s cultural highlight of the year. Read about recent productions below, and if you still want to be part of the next show, get in touch with Director Paul Mellor
RSC unveils new revelations about Robin Hood
and his Merry Persons
This year’s Rodmell pantomime ended its run on Sunday night. Paul Mellor and his Merry Stage-Persons brought us a panto which amply lived up to the best traditions of this much-loved artform. Here’s a full review by our most discerning village critic.
This year’s Rodmell pantomime ended its lengthy run on Sunday night, having delighted audiences with a traditional British confection of corruption, lust, provocatively-clad ladies, men (and women) who are not what they seem, and ultimately the triumph of virtue over evil. Several local thespians showed off their well-documented talents and a few of them showed they could act as well. None of them forgot more than a few of their lines, lost many of their props or dropped a microphone. It was, in short, a triumph for which the cast and their Director – not to say the whole village – may be proud.
A number of national critics invited by this website to attend last year’s performances of Dick Whittington raised some concerns about the production’s non-politically-correct treatment of gender issues. The RSC and indeed the entire village were united in their rejection of this criticism, calling it ‘metrosexual claptrap’ and ‘a wanton assault on straightforward village values’. It was therefore decided not to invite external critics this year, but to rely on a ‘commonsense local appraisal’ of the production and its approach to the vexed question of gender in pantomimes.
Our commonsense local reporter can truthfully say that this production demonstrated exactly the approach that had been hoped for, namely one which threw political correctness to the four winds and concentrated on the familiar blend of slanderous local references, smut, innuendo, appalling jokes and a ready supply of alcoholic refreshment (plus Maltesers for the children at the matinee).
Village heartthrob Abby Benham-Wood dusted off her well-loved fishnet tights to good effect in the title role of Robin, though it was perhaps surprising that her inamorata, Maid Marion, played by Lindy Smart, was unmistakeably a female, if not exactly a maid. In fact the approach to gender was quite relaxed this year. Of the Merry Persons, one, Little John (Jane Finch), had already undergone gender re-assignment to become Little Jane, and another, Mitch the Miller’s son (Jo Mortimer), seemed keen to keep his/her sexuality as ambiguous as his/her purpose amongst the Merry Persons, which appeared to be to give lessons in grammar, syntax and the use of tautologies. However Friar Tuck, played by Spencer Prosser (who will clearly need to shed some of his character’s weight before the next cricket season) was indisputably male, and creditably just managed not to spoonerise his name at the matinee performance. Equally creditably, the Director made no attempt to draw any connection between Tuck’s character and the vicar of Rodmell.
In fact it seems that this year gender issues may have taken second place to political comment. With Rodmell temporarily transported to the East Midlands, the action began with a bitter social critique between two comely Rodmell wenches, charmingly named Hayspit and Ragwort (Jess Bright and Lily), and an old-school straw-chewing yokel (authentically played by David Smart) lamenting the takeover of the village by DFNs (Down from Nottinghams), who were pricing out the locals by buying up the best hovels and gentrifying them with newfangled outdoor privvies. In a classic Corbynista rant, all agreed that the real heart of the problem was the corrupt rule of the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, who funded his degenerate lifestyle by putting up taxes and increasing the price of Harvey’s Best Mead.
Here Richard Sellick gave us a performance of pure pantomime evil, in which he was presumably able to draw heavily on his Parish Council experience of putting up the parish precept. It is worth also commending his remarkable ability to sing a song in several keys simultaneously. Having failed to get his wicked way with Marion, he turns his attention to the buxom Soothsayer, Morgana (Phoebe Sawyer), whose help he needs in ensnaring Robin Hood. Thus he attempts to set up an archery competition as a trap. In best panto style Robin a) falls for it, b) is captured, c) escapes and d) gets everything else that he wants.
As so often in pantomimes, the plot itself plays a secondary role to the tale of who fancies whom. Morgana the Soothsayer fancies the Sheriff, the Sheriff fancies Marion but changes his mind to Morgana, Marion fancies Robin, Robin fancies Marion but also fancies winning a hundred duckets, Mitch fancies Lee the minstrel (Tom Woodbridge), and all the Merry Persons fancy a square meal. Whilst all of the above goals are being hotly pursued, Good King Richard (a suitably regal Rich Roberts, who unsurprisingly fancies his sultry maidservant, Laura Rusbridge) returns from slaughtering infidels in the Holy Land and lays down the law to the Sheriff, who caves in like a Lewes sink-hole, and everybody, as far as we know, lives happily ever after.
Responsible for all this mayhem was Rodmell’s legendary panto Director Paul Mellor, who also took the role of Nurse Noelle in what was presumably a veiled warning of the dangers of Brexit to small Rodmell businesses, though it might also serve to encourage the learning of proper French accents by schoolchildren.
The music was, as ever, provided by the multi-talented Andy Stewart at the keyboard. He had successfully managed to train most of the cast, but happily had the good sense to ban one of them from singing more than one song.
Johann Seillig, the distinguished German expert on mediaeval LGBT matters, points out: “at a significant moment in the first act a character is heard to remark that Robin Hood’s band of Merry Persons has ‘a robust policy on diversity and inclusivity’. Whilst this could be taken simply at its face value, to place the audience at its ease, an alternative explanation could be that due to the speaker’s enunciation (Sussex rather than Notts) what was said could actually have been ‘a robber’s policy on diversity and inclusivity’, implying that Robin Hood had total licence to rob any and all that he chose. This would match a previously-held interpretation of our hero’s name as ‘Robbin’ Hood’, where Hood is being used in the American sense”. Whilst a neat theory, it does however leave open the satisfactory explanation of the gender issues inherent in the casting.
Lighting: Martin Burnaby-Davies
Costumes: Sarah Jay, Lesley Prosser, Kim Mercer
Continuity: Sarah Jay
Bar: Jon Cleall, Carol Ashplant
Cast Refreshments: Pauline Burnaby-Davies
Raffle (Proceeds to Lewes Food Bank): Lesley Prosser
Front of House Team
Sarah Last, Liz Mellor, Kim Mercer, Lesley Prosser, Fiona Roberts
The critics’ views on last year’s production
“This year the Rodmell Stage Company, after lengthy historic research, threw new light on the tale of Dick Whittington, and brought it to life in a stunning display of pantomime artistry. Singing skills were discovered in a number of residents who never knew they had them, and superb musical support was provided by a well-known duo of wandering minstrels.
The legend of Richard Whittington is well known and at least partly true; he journeyed from Gloucester to London to seek his fortune, made an entrepreneurial voyage to a far-off land to rid it of a plague of rats, and became Lord Mayor of London four times. In the process he amassed large fortunes, the first one by screwing foreigners, and then an even larger one by lending the first one back to his own countrymen, including the king. For this selfless commercial acumen he was awarded a knighthood, and for the rich comic potential of his name and relationship with the 15th century equivalent of Cat-Woman, he gained immortality as the only real-life pantomime character.
What is less well-known is that on his original journey he strayed some distance off-course (this being before the construction of the M4) and fetched up in the small Sussex village known from Saxon times as Rude-Moll – later corrupted into Rodmell. It seems probable that here he embarked on an affair with the pulchritudinous daughter of a village dignitary (i.e. from Lower Rodmell) and a local feline (both seriously up for his advances) and to prove himself launched a practice version of his overseas rat-catching venture (one could hardly call it a dry run in Rodmell).
The tale then becomes less clear; with the proceeds of his success he may have married the wench, or simply invested his newfound riches in the purchase of a tract of land which has ever since been known as The Dicklands. It was clearly his intention in doing so to bring Upper Rodmell up to the social standards of the more fashionable Lower village and thereby make a fortune in Real Estate. It seems however that this venture failed, leaving him no option but to “turn again” towards London and buy up Chelsea instead.
Paul Mellor’s production, so sadly absent last year, treated us to an only-too believable reconstruction of the legend, larded with an only-too-predictable wealth of innuendo (the RSC must be hoping that Britain’s exit from the EU will not see the double-entendre banned as un-patriotic). To be fair, lip service was paid to enlightened post-modern attitudes towards gender issues, with one cast member courageously protesting on stage about the need to move on from gender stereotyping and smutty innuendo (though it was a girl, of course). Possibly the practice of casting a woman in the role of the principal boy, in this case Dick, previously often thought ludicrous and demeaning, can actually be explained in modern gender-enlightened terms as freeing principal dramatic roles from the straightjacket of male domination. Whatever the rationale, it must be said that Dick’s fishnet tights did add a certain frisson.
Another gender-fluid role was taken by Paul Mellor himself as the dissolute Dora Tipples; here the frisson was less marked, though the character was entirely believable. So too was Lucie Sargeant as Fairy Fanny (perhaps a reference to the original Rude Moll?), swapping miracles in the Abergavenny Arms for spells on the stage. Alderman Fitz de Warenne and his daughter Alice (Richard Sellick and Ellie Wilkins) gave performances of studied Lower Rodmell authenticity, and the rest of the cast – assorted rats, cats, low-lifes, idlers and posers, performed well to type and lost no opportunity to mine the rich seam of potential dirt underlying the many references to Richards and Felines. The four performances were admirably well attended, which may have had less to do with the expectation of vulgar wit than the pleasure of hearing a large number of village reputations traduced at the same time, plus the existence of a well-stocked bar at the back. Whatever their motives they would not have been disappointed.”
As the village website is not fully competent to undertake dramatic reviews we invited several well-known theatre critics to the performances. Here are selection of their comments.
“CAT-a-TONIC” The Sun
“This Dick comes up trumps” The Star
“Why do we tolerate this filth in the 21st Century? Get rid of the European Court of Justice and bring back the stocks for slander and obscenity” The Daily Mail.
“Listen guys, it’s time for fishnet tights to be consciously uncoupled from male expectations of female-personhood” Gwyneth Paltrow
“Those fishnet tights were pure theatrical Viagra” The Telegraph
“The Rodmell pantomime needs to become more committed to anarchist, trans-national and queer perspectives which embrace the multiple shifting identities of gender-fluid communities. However Paul Mellor’s production is to be commended for updating the traditional boy/girl-girl/boy matrix, not to tear down the categories of male and female but to open them up to less limited possibilities of suggestive, tasteless and adolescent smut”. The Guardian
It only remains for us to congratulate the whole company, and especially Paul Mellor, the CATalyst, on an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating coup de téatre, and to wait eagerly to see what next year will have in store.
Dick Whittington ~~~~~~~~ Abby Benham-Wood
Fairy Fanny ~~~~~~~~ Lucie Sargeant
Cabin Person ~~~~~~~~ Lily
Captain Birdsmess ~~ Spencer Prosser
The Cat ~~ Jane Finch
Alice Fitz de Warrene ~~ Ellie Wilkins
Alderman Fitz de Warrene ~~ Richard Sellick
Dota Tipples ~~ Paul Mellor
King Rat ~~ Richard Roberts
Top Rat ~~ Pete Jarrett
Idle Jack ~~ Lindy Smart
Empress of Shanghai ~~ Phoebe Sawyer
Inspector Wong ~~ Tom Bright
Leader of the Chinese Rats ~~ Jess Bright
Musical Director ~~ Andy Stewart
Percussion ~~ Jacob Prosser
Lighting ~~ Martin Burnaby-Davies
Costumes & Backstage ~~ Sarah Jay
Stage Manager ~~ Poppy Swain
Scenery Design ~~ Eleanor
With help from ~~ Susan D’Souza
Front of House Team
Lesley Prosser, Pauline Burnaby-Davies, Fiona Roberts and Jordan Last
Photography by Andrew Perris of The Photography Firm
Written & Directed by Paul Mellor