“retains the wit and eloquence of the original while throwing in modern references and context”
“All art is quite useless”. So says Oscar Wilde in his preface to his only novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Wilde may be considered the forerunner of the Art for Art’s Sake aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, yet it was William S. Gilbert’s libretto for the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “Patience” that helped to create the image that Wilde would adopt. The central character, Reginald Bunthorne, was thought to have been modelled on Wilde whereas it was, in fact, the other way round.
“Patience”, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser performed comic operas, is a gentle satire on the whole movement of the time, but also targets the ephemeral nature of fashion, hero-worship, vanity and meaningless fads. Which is why it lends itself so well to being set in today’s society. Charles Court Opera do just that with their customary skill and inventiveness. Set in an English pub called ‘The Castle’, complete with dartboard, real ale and shot glasses, designer Simon Bejer dresses the characters in a mix of Belle Époque, Goth and Steampunk. We could be anytime, anyplace, anywhere; but we know it’s pretty contemporary. The language, too, retains the wit and eloquence of the original while throwing in modern references and context.
Wilton’s Music Hall is a difficult space acoustically and often suffers when amps are plugged in. Charles Court Opera rely on just piano and the nine glorious voices of the company. Because of illness, director John Savournin has boldly, and rather magnificently, stepped into the role of the effete and flowery poet, Bunthorne. Fawning over him are the Ladies Angela, Saphir and Jane (Meriel Cunningham, Jennie Jacobs and Catrine Kirkman); a tight knit trio in perfect harmony but each with an individualism that allows them to break away into gorgeous solo moments. Particularly Kirkman who opens the second act with ‘Sad is that Woman’s Lot’, lamenting the cruel effects of time while desperately trying to ignore the temptations of the Walker’s crisps on the bar.
The male counterparts are equally impressive. Matthew Palmer, Dominic Bowe and David Menezes are the Dragoon Guards returning to reclaim their Ladies’ hearts, but to no avail. They tackle the quick-fire lyrical challenges with ease, turning each tongue-twister into finely tuned punchlines. Matthew Siveter, as the hilariously vain Archibald Grosvenor who steers the ladies’ affections away from Bunthorne, bursts with satirical humour, at first relishing the attention, then wearying of the synthetic textures of this thing called ‘romantic love’. After all, he only has eyes for his childhood sweetheart, the eponymous Patience (Catriona Hewitson). The barmaid of the Castle Pub, she is thankful she’s never been in love, seeing how miserable it seems to make everybody. Hewitson charms the audience with a simple logic, crystal clear delivery, and striking soprano; and winning our hearts with a standout ‘Love is a Plaintive Song’.
The delivery of the dialogue is sometimes overwrought and unnecessarily hammed up, which the comedy doesn’t really need. The cast have enough presence to reach the far corners of the hall. We feel their joy too as. When “Patience” opened in 1881, Gilbert thought the show’s appeal would prove just as ephemeral as its subject matter, and wouldn’t be appreciated in years to come. Thankfully, Charles Court Opera have proved him wrong with their classy, timeless, imaginative and virtuosic production.
“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.