One of my favourite things about Robin of Sherwood is the camaraderie and obvious affection for each other shared by the cast. Would the setting still work with a piece recorded by a limited number of actors forced to work in isolation due to a once a century pandemic? With Spiteful Puppet’s newest release, Robin of Sherwood: Fitzwarren’s Well, we get to find out the answer to this previously unasked question.
The story starts with Marion (Judi Trott) calling on Herne the Hunter – played by Daniel Abineri, son of the late John Abineri who played Herne in the series – for help. Most of the rest of the gang have been struck down with some kind of a pox, and despite her best efforts she can’t do anything about it. For the next fifteen minutes we basically get exposition from various characters. Firstly about the dire situation they are in and wondering why Marion hasn’t been struck down, then a rationalisation as to why Will also isn’t sick, and finally why Fitzwarren is so set against the outlaws.
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Considering that writer Jennifer Ash had the unenviable task of rationalising the lack of merry men and explaining a fair bit of Robin of Sherwood back story, it’s still pretty accessible and doesn’t really drag. Indeed, the relish Ian Ogilvy as Lord Edgar of Huntingdon – a one-off bad guy and Robin’s Uncle from Season 3 of the TV series – brings to the part is more than engaging enough for me to sit through what is, in essence, a recap of an old episode.
It’s wonderful to see Judi Trott given the chance to shine. Though she is the most wonderfully cast Marion I can think of, any rewatch of the original series should leave the viewer with the feeling that she is sadly underused, despite the talk of her being another of the other Merrys. Here she gets to take the lead, and not a moment too soon.
Jon Culshaw’s Will Scarlet is interesting. Though I’m no stranger to Culshaw’s appearances as Tom Baker’s Doctor on early Big Finish stories, despite being a huge fan of the series this is my first Robin of Sherwood audio outing. What is immediately obvious is that Culshaw doesn’t sound like Scarlet, but like Ray Winstone does now. I know that Winston has been in another of Spiteful Puppet’s productions, so I guess it makes sense, but for me, having just come from watching the episode ‘Rutterkin’ to remind myself of Huntingdon’s story, the older voice jarred in a way that Trott’s didn’t. None of this is to detract from Culshaw’s abilities as a voice actor; his portrayal is believable and authentic, doing the character and himself credit.
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Bringing back Huntingdon could have had something of the feel of gimmick about it. Edgar was last seen being hexed to death by a woman falsely accused of being a witch (best not to ask). However, his appearance here in a remembered conversation with his son works nicely, and doesn’t feel at all out of place. Equally the casting of Sarah Greene might have felt like a play for the nostalgia pound, but she really is excellent in the role of the Lady of the Well, managing to bring a solemn yet vulnerable characterisation.
Barnaby Eaton-Jones rounds out the cast as Fitzwarren, doing a fine enough job as the moustache-twirling villain of the piece. Eaton-Jones, who is the Creative Director for Spiteful Puppet, also produces and directs here, so this is obviously a labour of love for him, and I imagine for much of the crew. From certain character-specific lines cropping up, and the elegant use of Clannad, to what must have been a tough job editing it all together, there has been a lot of time and trouble taken over this.
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But does it work? Mostly. I do struggle with a Robin of Sherwood story lacking more of the outlaws. The close-knit gang is the reason I love the series so much. I’ve wanted to be a part of that group for as long as I can remember, and them not being there is a loss that I feel, despite how good the cast here might be. Additionally, and I confess that it may be the fact that I know these scenes were recorded in isolation playing on my mind, at times one character’s response or reaction to another feels either over or understated, as though the actors were having to guess what emotional read they were responding to.
Still, it’s an enjoyable adventure, and the theme of a poorly understood sickness and the quest for healing feels particularly poignant at this time. The earlier Spiteful Puppet Robin of Sherwood productions have been on my radar for a long time, but after hearing this I think they now need to move from my wishlist to my playlist.
Robin of Sherwood: Fitzwarren’s Well is out now from Spiteful Puppet.