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REVIEW: Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen

WORTH HIS SALT: Andrew Pepper as dame Camilla Crusoe
WORTH HIS SALT: Andrew Pepper as dame Camilla Crusoe

AS an arts reviewer the hazards of the job at this time of year is festive entertainment fatigue — FEF for short. It comes from hearing Away In a Manger once too often and seeing a number of enjoyable but largely predictable pantos.

I was suffering from a mild bout of FEF ahead of my visit to see Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen at The Theatre Chipping Norton, and suspected one more panto might aggravate my condition considerably. Readers, it did not, in fact a miracle cure ensued.

The panto at Chippy has a great reputation for offering an antedote to the often asinine blockbuster panto shows at bigger theatres. This year’s is simply one of the best pantos I’ve ever seen.

It is a very funny, joyous fast-paced romp with a tight script and topical gags galore. The brilliant cast look as though they are having a great time; and Saturday’s audience were totally in the zone with them. This included a toddler in the seat next to me who booed a big bad yeti with tremendous enthusiasm and righteous anger. The yeti was a large orange furry creature with Donald Trump’s face, known as The Terrible Trump. After a troubled year of politics it felt very cathartic to join in the yelling of ‘Down with the Terrible Trump’.

One of the things that ups the ante with the Chippy panto this year is the fact that they have employed the services of the brilliant panto playwright, Andrew Pollard.

Instead of being a rather uncomfortable tale between master and a black slave, this production, in the highly capable hands of director, John Terry, looks at the relationship of two people from very different worlds, thrust together in adversity.

Robinson Crusoe — played with boyish, laid-back charm by Craig Rhys Barlow — is bored and looking for adventure. He meets ‘posh’ girl Polly who’s very jolly hockey sticks but with ninja-like fighting skills — Emilia Williams is fabulously feisty in the role. Despite class differences they fall in love and, having found a treasure map go off on a sea adventure. Someone else who wants the treasure is Pirate Queen, Betty ‘Bad Dog’ Babcock — a hilarious performance by Kali Hughes. Jean-Luke Worrell doubles on roles — brilliantly playing Betty’s stupid and wonky-eyed henchman, Fwaafwaa, and then, following storms and shipwreck, Friday, a Native American Chieftain who helps Robinson when he is stranded on his desert island, and the two form a friendship of equals.

What is a panto without a dame? Happily Andrew Pepper as Robinson’s mum, Mrs Camilla Crusoe, is a corker. Blessed with dry humour and a terrific pair of lungs, she delivers jokes and songs like a grand vaudevillian, and is just immensely fabulous.

The show was so brilliant, I may have shaken off FEF, but developed POD — panto obsessive disorder.

And I can only say Merry Christmas to that

Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen, The Theatre Chipping Norton, runs until Sunday, 8th January. Book tickets here

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