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: