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No men in tights: Russell Crowe shows the gritty side of a legend

Timothy Barber
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Film
ROBIN HOOD
Cert: 12A
***

ROBIN HOOD is the fourth collaboration between Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, and comes a decade after their first outing, the majestic Ancient Rome saga Gladiator. It shares that film’s muscular swordplay, gritty historical vision and interest in ancient politics, but lacks its pile-driving sense of excitement.

Whether the world needs another retelling of the Robin Hood legend is perhaps a moot point, but the new version is an admirable attempt to move it away from camp men in tights or the daft phoniness of 1991’s Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. That film’s strong point was Alan Rickman’s hilarious turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and I could’ve done with some of his wit and panache in this rather po-faced telling.

In fact the Sheriff is merely a side-player in this film, which is really a prequel, our hero only becoming an outlaw in Sherwood Forest at the very end. There’s not a bit of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Instead we meet Robin Longstride in France, a veteran archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army, laying siege to a French citadel. After the king is killed and Robin and a few colleagues desert, a series of coincidences leave him bearing the royal crown back to England in the guise of Richard’s trusted lieutenant, the slain Robin of Locksley. He then makes for Nottingham to return Locksley’s sword to his father (Max von Sydow) and wife Marion (Cate Blanchett), where he’s persuaded to continue the deception to help defend their estate from the tax-grabbing greed of newly-crowned King John.

Meanwhile – bear with me – the French are planning to invade England, employing a vicious villain named Godfrey (Mark Strong) to feign loyalty to King John while causing havoc around the country to weaken it. Robin must fight off Godfrey, unify the barons, convince slimy King John to join forces, repel the French, fall for Marion and even draw up a pre-Magna Carta socialist charter for the king to sign, while maintaining his identity deception.

The film’s really more like Braveheart than anything else, as armies clash, corrupt kings plot, speeches about freedom get uttered and skulls get split. At the heart of it, Crowe is sturdy as a boulder and about as animated, while his attempt at a Nottinghamshire burr wanders around Ireland, Scotland and the Midlands without ever settling. In fact the accents are all pretty awful since, with the exception of Mark Strong and Mark Addy as Friar Tuck, there’s barely a British actor anywhere to be seen.

There are far too many characters, a confusing story, and it never quite inspires in the way the best epics do. But it’s an epic nevertheless, with tremendous battles, masses of machismo, great swooping shots of armies galloping across the countryside, a full-on invasion and some pretty handy long-bow skills.

Musical
SWEET CHARITY
Theatre Royal Haymarket
****

TAMZIN OUTHWAITE, the TV star best known for playing tough cookie Mel in Eastenders for several years, is a revelation in this highly enjoyable production of the Sixties musical. She plays the title role of Charity Hope Valentine, a hostess at a sleazy New York nightclub who, as one of her fellow characters says, “runs her heart like a hotel – men check in and out all the time.” She’s a kooky charmer who dreams of falling in love with the guy who’s going to take her to a better life, but men just keep letting her down.

Any production of Sweet Charity is somewhat hampered by the fact that it’s not the greatest musical ever written. It has some fantastic songs by Cy Coleman – including Hey Big Spender, The Rhythm of Life and If They Could See Me Now – but the story, in which Charity gets robbed by one lover, finds herself spending an entertaining night with a film star and falls for a nervous accountant, is slight.

No matter, this show sizzles nonetheless. Originally created at Southwark’s unlikely hit machine the Menier Chocolate Factory – the Broadway transfers of two previous Menier shows have this week amassed 15 Tony award nominations between them – Matthew White’s production has tremendous vitality, anchored by Stephen Mear’s imaginative, sparkling choreography.

Outhwaite turns out to have a big voice, nifty dance moves and impressive comedic skills in a performance that mixes breezy panache with underlying fragility. Mark Umbers also gives terrific value as all three of Charity’s suitors, while the small ensemble cast work their absolute socks off to tremendous effect in a show that hits all the right notes.