by Ewa Giera
“You’re a socialist, how can you hate people?!”
The line is directed towards Marion, the genderqueer activist, café worker and counterpart to Robin Good.
The audience laughs goodheartedly at the oxymoron. Taken aback, I find myself laughing along. Soon after, Marion decides to run in the election to oust the Tory-coded Sheriff of Norwich, alongside Robin, and their drag queen father, Stratton Strawless.
The politico-panto is certainly an interesting concept – but as such, it has a tough goal to achieve: try to strike a balance between the traditional silly pantomime humour and the more serious political matter. I have to admit that I found myself concerned about how the concept would be executed, and whether the traditional pantomime humour would come at the expense of the strictly queer, “othered”, characters.
The show starts off with the introduction of Barry – the Sheriff of Norwich (played by Will Arundell). His party, heavily alluded to as the Conservatives, has deep links to the Government Ministry of Greed and Division. As one might expect, his objectives for the next term include: building a wall around Norfolk, turning it into a resort for the mega rich, and pricing all the locals out into Suffolk. He’s also accompanied by his “henchmen”, goons in Viking hats that are not only reminiscent of devil horns, but also elements of Norse spiritualism that has been long adopted by Neo-Nazi groups. Barry himself is explicitly queercoded – he wears a leather jacket with a heart on the back, a hat that from a distance could be taken as either a leather daddy cap or an SS military hat, and employs effeminate mannerisms that remind of stereotypically gay behaviour.
Robin and Marion, played by Richard Upton and Aveen Biddle, do a great job of representing the fragmentation of leftist youth groups. Robin is a self-professed social media influencer, whose life is a struggle between wanting to make money and living by their progressive values. Marion is an activist in the real world, handing out flyers and attending protests, but struggles with talking to other people and openly admits that they hate them. Whilst represented in a humorous, downright silly way, the portrayal remains honest and raw. It was particularly interesting to see that Robin’s struggle with trying to maintain their moral integrity had a source in the greed and division generated by right-wing influence in order to sow discord amongst the protagonists.
What really surprised me about the show was the sensitive handling of gender treatment and trans issues. One of the main characters and Robin Good’s dad, the drag queen Stratton Strawless (played by Mike Lloyd), has a very touching subplot where she is being romantically pursued by Don, the delivery man. He appears to be madly in love with her and plans to propose, until she reveals that she’s not a cis woman, which causes him to run. At first, watching the scene made me uncomfortable – I was worrying that it would be used as a way to point fingers and laugh at the situation, which is very sensitive and too real for many trans people across the UK. However, without spoiling the ending, I felt that the situation was handled in a sensitive and compassionate way that didn’t leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
The show, a pantomime at its core, makes you want to sing your heart out. There’s plenty of well-known musical numbers and dance battles, there’s glamour and genuine joy. This kind of framing makes the show unapologetically fun. It has to be mentioned that the actors are truly impressive performers – particularly Arundell and Lloyd – talented actors, dancers, musicians and singers, who often swap out their instruments and pick them back up seamlessly. The audience participation elements were also fantastic, although I imagine that Stratton Strawless walking around with a bowl of batter near the front row must have struck some fear into them!
I think part of the success of the show was its unapologetic locality. The references to local towns around Norfolk and Suffolk, particularly Cromer, had me and the rest of the audience, in stitches. I also felt that choosing to set the panto in a similar setting to where it was being performed was as a smart tool to close any distance between the viewers and political conflicts that always seem so far away.
The larger success of Robin Good – the politico-panto, however, lies in its uniquely queer perspective. It’s clear that non-LGBT+ writers would have likely not been able to strike the balance between the silly, sometimes crude humour of the panto and the raw political conflicts the show clearly wanted us to think about. The way queerness and politics were weaved into one another really drives home the point that it is always political to talk about gender, class and sexuality, even when the framing of the show itself remains at its silliest.
Ultimately, it felt that everyone had left the show with something on their mind, something to think about other than just the jokes. I would call that a tremendous success on the writer’s part.
All images by Richard Jarmy Photography
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