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BEOWULF: AN EPIC PANTO

Beowulf: An Epic Panto

★★★★

King’s Head Theatre

BEOWULF: AN EPIC PANTO

Beowulf: An Epic Panto

King’s Head Theatre

Reviewed – 30th November 2021

★★★★

 

“a refreshing change from all the Dick Whittingtons and Christmas Carols on offer this holiday season”

 

The latest seasonal offering from the Charles Court Opera is Beowulf, billed as an “epic panto.” It has just opened at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, and is sure to please fans of the Company’s work. For those new to the Charles Court Opera—come ready to watch a show that is as subversive as it is entertaining. The cast of six take on Beowulf with just the right amount of energy and enthusiasm and, true to the traditions of panto, provide plenty of moments for the audience to join in the fun.

The first of several surprises awaiting the audience is watching what writer and director John Savournin has done to the original story. This Beowulf takes a radical departure from the Anglo Saxon text to bring us a sensitive, compassionate hero and a kick ass fashionista princess who doesn’t need any help protecting her kingdom, thank you very much. The next surprise is that it’s still in verse a lot of the time (if you can call doggerel poetry). The text goes into battle at every opportunity armed with outrageous puns and double entendre. The Charles Court Opera’s Beowulf is a singing, dancing, updated panto that is an alluring, full throttle parody of every monster story you’ve ever loved to hate. It also has a happy ending. Last, but certainly not least, this show is full of themes that will resonate with LGBTQIA audiences everywhere.

That’s not to say that the production is totally flawless. Beowulf does get off to a slow start as the performers, heavily cloaked, file on stage. The weightiness continues as the cast intones the first lines of the poem—in Anglo-Saxon. Then we meet the main characters, and suddenly everything becomes lighter—and a lot more fun. As Beowulf reverts to modern English, we discover that Beowulf has only arrived at Princess Hrothmund’s hall to play hero because of family pressure. Sound familiar? In reality, our hero is a chill guy who’s more into making friends than monster slaying. More importantly, his best friend Wiglaff is in love with him, and is trying to find the right moment to declare himself. Writer Savournin adds a greatly misunderstood monster in Grendel (who is also looking for friends—and his missing father). This Grendel just needs the right hero to come along to take him camping. Yes, this Beowulf is delightfully camp, and the cast make the most of it. Matthew Kellett (Beowulf) makes a sympathetic anti-hero, but the stand out performances come from Emily Cairns as Wiglaff, and Jennie Jacobs as Grendel’s Mother. Philip Lee as Grendel and Julia Mariko Smith as Princess Hrothmund strut their stuff in flamboyant costumes, (designed by Stewart J Charlesworth) despite the formidable competition from Grendel’s Mamma. The quality of the singing is so good that it does make one wonder from time to time if the production has escaped from a major opera house only to re-emerge in a small, dark pub theatre. And it is a pub theatre sized show, so there are also moments when one feels Savournin needs to rein in his enthu-siastic company (and his imagination) before the whole thing goes off the rails—but what the heck, it’s panto. Of course he can throw a dragon into the mix if he wants to.

The Charles Court Opera’s Beowulf is a refreshing change from all the Dick Whittingtons and Christmas Carols on offer this holiday season, so don’t hesitate to take the family (or the office party) to the King’s Head for a show that hits all the right notes. You’ll never see Beowulf quite the same way again.

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Craig Fuller

 


Beowulf: An Epic Panto

King’s Head Theatre until 8th January 2022

 

Previously reviewed at this venue this year:
Tender Napalm | ★★★★★ | October 2021

 

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Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown

★★★★

Online

Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown

Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown

Online via www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Reviewed – 14th December 2020

★★★★

 

“The talent on display longs to break out of the small screen and take to the stage again”

 

“Mirror mirror on the wall…” begins the Wicked Queen in familiar, heightened, camped up, Disney tones. The mirror is cracked and voiced by the inimitable comedy couple Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, so any resemblance to the usual Snow-White tale is thrown out of the window for the next hour. The Queen brushes aside the pleasantries about who might be the fairest in the land; she wants to know how best to claw back all that money from furlough that she doled out throughout the year.

And so, the tone is set. But this is more than a mere retelling of Snow White with clever references to Lockdown, as the title might suggest. Last Christmas Charles Court Opera took the Nativity story and turned it completely on its head to joyful and triumphant effect. This year they have been forced to work behind closed doors, but their boundless, chaotic imaginations have not been restrained in the least and again, they have created a unique show dressed up in their distinctive style. It is difficult to continue this review without spoilers. But then again, I could probably describe the plot in detail for you and you’d still be none the wiser.

Snow White is a man in a frock, widow to the late, great King of Soul, Barry White. See what I mean? The Prince of Pretzel (aka Larry) wants to marry Snow White, but his valet Harry reminds him that she is a commoner and therefore beneath him. The Wicked Queen has other plans entirely. The seven dwarves are renamed due to Disney copyright. The poisoned apple is a box of Turkish Delight (or is it a bomb? Or a Pie?). When Larry and Harry meet Gary (the plumber, or could it be the Wicked Queen in disguise…?) things hot up. The jokes and innuendos are the only elements of predictability in this otherwise surreal and riotous romp through Fairyland. There is a family version or an adult version to choose from before you watch, though I suspect there is little difference between the two. A few profanities aside, it is soft-core enough to sit either side of the watershed. The enjoyment and the subversive sense of humour derives from the twists in the Pythonesque narrative, but above all in the performances of the company’s members.

Jennie Jacobs cuts a dusky figure as the Wicked Queen; an inspired cross between Penelope Keith and Cruella de Ville. John Savournin’s Snow White channels David Walliams in drag; but better. Savounin makes the character truly his own with a finely honed, deadpan self-deprecation. Like the rest of the cast, Emily Cairns as the Prince and Meriel Cunningham as the side-kick valet who turns into a toad, trailblaze through the show with expert comic timing and spot-on characterisation. And then there is Matthew Kellett, who has the job of playing the seven dwarves. His versatility borders on insane, especially when he delivers an Elton John pastiche, singing to his own corpse at the funeral of ‘Half Baked’ the dwarf. Indeed, the musical moments stand out. Each member of the cast, along with the chorus, is in fine voice. David Eaton’s lyrics are as inventive and topical as ever, pasted onto parodies that plunder popular culture. The highlight of the show has to be a brilliant ensemble mash up that, within a mere two and a half minutes, packs in The Beatles, A-Ha, Village people, Oasis and ‘Les Misérables’ among others.

The comic references, particularly to the pandemic, never hamper the action, which trundles towards a neat, morally strewn conclusion during which we are advised not to hide the power of “lurve” by Barry White himself (uncannily voiced by Marcus Fraser) from behind an animated cloud. We could almost be in Terry Gilliam territory.

Occasionally, though, the team’s ambitions outstretch them. The interactive elements, whereby we can select an option on the screen to determine the course of the action stall the flow. The teething problems inherent in the technology occasionally set us adrift. But once back on board we are again swept along. It is a shame, though, that we are not witnessing this show live. The talent on display longs to break out of the small screen and take to the stage again. But if this year’s offering is anything to go by, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next Christmas when, surely by then, we’ll all be back in a sold-out auditorium – which is what they deserve.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by  Ali Wright

 


 

Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown

Available to stream until 31st December from www.kingsheadtheatre.com

 

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