Babes in the Wood

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Babes in the Wood is a generic title used for a number of works based on the tale of two children, abandoned deep in the forest upon the orders of their Wicked Uncle.

Many versions have alternative titles or subsidiary titles.

The original text

Based on an old English Ballad (preserved in the British Museum) printed by Thomas Millington in Norwich in 1595, it has been reworked in many forms and frequently appears attributed as a Mother Goose rhyme. The anonymous ballad was illustrated by Randolph Caldecott in a book published in 1879.

The expression a "babe in the wood" to refer to a naïve person derives from this tale.

Translations and adaptations

First presented on the stage in 1793 as an opera by Samuel Arnold called The Children In The Wood, performed at the Haymarket Theatre. In 1812 an operatic Burletta was done at the Surrey Theatre.

In 1827 the first pantomime version - called Harlequin and Cock Robin, or The Babes In The Wood was performed at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. This was done once more at the Haymarket Theatre, in 1856.

In 1867 the character of Robin Hood was introduced to the story, as the savior of the children.

A version entitled The Babes in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Cruel Uncle! variously referred to as a "Christmas Pantomime" or, more elaborately, a "Christmas pastoral and peculiarly pantomimical Pantomime", was devised and performed in Cape Town by Sefton Parry in 1859. A full outline of the 11 scenes of this play is provided in the programme for the performance, reproduced in F.C.L. Bosman (1980: pp.81-86). (Despite having worked from Parry's programme, Bosman's index strangely gives the title as The Babes in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Evil Uncle.)

Since then there have been a myriad of versions of, and approaches to, the basic story, often adapted and reworked by the writers, directors and casts involved in a particular production. (See for example the It's Behind You website at

Performance history in South Africa

1859: Performed as The Babes in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Cruel Uncle! by the Sefton Parry company on 27 in the Cape Town Theatre, with an additional performance on 28 December at the request of the Governor. Billed by producer Parry as "The First Christmas Pantomime in South Africa", though there is some doubt about this. It was preceded by a performance of The Rough Diamond (Buckstone)

1860: Performed as The Babes in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Cruel Uncle! by the Sefton Parry company on 3 January, with A Blighted Being (Lefranc/Taylor).

1898: Performed as the The Babes in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Cruel Uncle! by D'Arcs Marionettes at the Port Elizabeth Opera House on February 12, 1898.

1960/1970s(?): Presented at the Ocean City Complex in Durban and elsewhere in South Africa, as a Christmas pantomime on ice called Babes in the Wood On Ice (also billed as Marjorie Chase's Babes in the Wood On Ice). Produced by Marjorie Chase, with an international cast of experienced ice-skaters supported by young local skaters. According to the adverts in the programme donated to ESAT, it appears to be the one used for the Cape Town performances, though neither the specific dates nor the venue are mentioned. The show manager was Ken MacPherson and the stage director Eddy Balk.

1984: Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood presented by NAPAC at the Alhambra Theatre, directed by Albie Louw, choreographed by Audrey Turner, from 14 December 1984.

1988: John Moss's adaptation of Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood presented by CAPAB/Arts Theatre Club at the Guild Theatre (December 1988) using the NAPAC sets and costumes, directed by Robin Williams, musical director Izak Bellingan, choreographer Di Ruddick. Cast included: Maria de Boer, Neil Emslie, Clayton Schlimper, Richard Rees, Di Ruddick, Paul Snodgrass, Benjamin Peacefull, Anne Archer, Maria Pouroullis, Mike Ormston, James Durno, Mike Ruddick, David Marks, Sean Broomhead, Richard Johnson, Brian Cook, Darryl Nel, Peter Gordon, George Mountjoy and Carol Johnson.

1998-9: Called an "adult pantomime", it was performed as Babes 'N the Wood at the Barney Simon Theatre (Market Theatre), 17 November 1998 to January 1999, written by Patrick Hyland and directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith, with Jason Kennett, Denise Stock, Byron Mondahl, Nick Borraine, Terence Bridgett, Thomas Hall, Sonia Mbele.

2010: Performed as a pantomime called Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban, by the KickstArt theatre company from 4 December to 9 January 2018, written and directed by Steven Stead, with Marc Kay, Graeme Wicks, Ntando Mncube, Roxy Nel, Peter Court and Evashnee Pillay. Musical director Evan Roberts, vocal director Shelley McLean, choreographer Janna Ramos-Violante, lighting designer Tina Le Roux and sound designer Megan Levy

2016: Performed as a pantomime called Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood in The Mandela stage at Joburg Theatre 5th November – 30th December. Produced by Bernard Jay, Claire Pacariz and Simon James it was written and directed by Janice Honeyman with Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Bongi Mthombeni, Kate Normington, Graham Hopkins, L. J. Urbani, Phumi Mncayi , Candida Mosoma, Carmen Pretorius, Jaco van Rensburg, TeeKay Baloyi, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nuritt Graff, Kyra Green, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Tsepho Ncokoane, Noni Mkhonto, Dale Scheepers, Natasha van der Merwe and Maryanne van Eyssen. Musical direction was by Rowan Bakker, choreography by Nicol Sheraton, sets and costumes by Qdos in the UK, lighting design by Graham McLusky, sound design by Richard Smith, with Timothy le Roux as the resident director.


F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp. 78, 82-6, 111, 193.

Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg: p. 88

William Groom. 1899-1900. Drama in Cape Town. Cape Illustrated Magazine, 10(4): 478-481, 517-520, 547-552, 580-584, 640-643, 670-672, 706-708.

Programme for Babes in the Wood On Ice, ESAT Archives

Ruphin Coudyzer. 2023. Annotated list of his photographs of Market Theatre productions. (Provided by Coudyzer)

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