Pros: Fun choreography, daft puppetry, huge energy.
Cons: Heavy on smut, light on good songs.
When Much the Miller’s son gets lost in Sherwood Forest, salvation comes at a price: the ragtag bunch of men who come to his rescue have a tiresome habit of breaking into song and dance. Because this is Nottingham, where life is a musical and everyone knows their lines, their steps and their place. Anyway, a few escapades later, and having won the hand of the lovely Delphina, Much is a musical convert. Great fun though it is, I’m not sure that Twang!! will have the same effect on all musical sceptics.
Twang!! is a Robin Hood musical written in 1965 by Lionel Bart. It was a critical and commercial flop at the time, but in 2008 Bart’s estate commissioned Julian Woolford to rewrite the book, and it is this version which is now playing at the Union Theatre. The set, created by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is tantalising; an atmospheric sylvan encampment with lots of levels and hiding places. As the show opens you can sense movement inside Robin Hood’s camp, but suddenly the enormous cast all pop out from their hiding places and then disappear back in. It’s very impressive.
The familiar faces are here: Little John, Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, Marian, all with distinct and well developed characters. I found Kane Verrall, as fabulous camp choreographer, Will Scarlett, and Louie Westwood as Friar Tuck, particularly watchable, but it’s a great ensemble effort. Subtlety is at a premium, and at another time of year you’d call it panto, but the cast get stuck in and deliver with the conviction that’s required for successful silliness. Puppetry follows the same model; patently ridiculous but surprisingly effective both narratively and comedically. The same can’t always be said of the bawdy innuendo. Whilst some of the puns are perfectly sniggerworthy, the several scenes featuring chastity belts just don’t deliver the right laugh to cringe ratio.
So what of the songs? Distinctly unmemorable, I’m afraid, with the possible exceptions of the opening number, Welcome to Sherwood Forest, and the gospel-inspired Silver Arrow. Not for the first time at the Union Theatre, I found that the music often drowned out the singers, so that it was hard to catch all the lyrics. In the case of many of these songs that probably wasn’t a great loss, but it is frustrating. Still, the dancing more than makes up for any shortcomings in the music and lyrics. It may not be groundbreaking choreography, but it’s energetic and exuberant, slick but not glossy. With as many as 16 performers packed into the tiny space between the front of the set and the front of the stage, it’s exhilarating to see them somehow move as one but each with their character’s own distinctive movement and expression.
On paper, Twang!! should have little appeal to anyone but smut-loving teenagers and middle-aged musical theatre buffs; its meta musical conceit is entertaining, its many references to the musical theatre canon a little less so. Yet in the flesh of this production, with this cast, it has a boisterous charm that will win over other audiences too.
Music and lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Julian Woolford
Director: Bryan Hodgson
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Mitchell Harper
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking Link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/
Booking Until: 5 May 2018