Writer and Director: John Savournin
Music and Lyrics: David Eaton
Anglo-Saxon warrior Beowulf’s defeat of the monster Grendel is not the obvious stuff of pantomime, but Charles Court Opera’s Beowulf, an Epic Panto pulls it off. The cast of six punch well above their weight – their singing powerful, their dancing sassy. John Savournin’s script is packed with comic one-liners and his story-telling is tight and funny. Songs from composer and lyricist lyrics David Eaton range effortlessly across assorted contemporary styles, each one compelling. The daring opening number, Thaet Waes God Cyning, is genuinely in Old English.
We are in Scandinavia deep in the past. Sly references to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones give instant context. The seemingly unremarkable set regularly comes alive with imaginative video projection. Snow falls as the story begins. The textured curves of the backdrop then become the waves of a winter sea into which Beowulf dives for his epic journey to fetch the stolen sacred sword. Best of all is the backdrop’s magical transformation into a dragon: artful lighting reveals that the contours of the dragon has been there all along. Smoke billows from its nostrils, its eyes and mouth glow red. It’s a spectacular moment realised by set and costume designer Stewart J Charlesworth.
Beowulf, we sense, isn’t much of a hero. Played with gusto by Matthew Kellett in a bouffant wig, he struts and postures – all mouth and no trousers. He is there with his devoted companion Wiglaff (a touching Emily Cairns). Wiglaff confides his tender feelings for Beowulf, but Beowulf is sure of his destiny: he will rescue the princess and marry her. But he hasn’t reckoned with Princess Hrothmund. Julia Mariko Smith, an Ariane Grande lookalike, has all the martial skills that Beowulf lacks. She is way out of his league.
Jennie Jacobs is terrific as the pantomime dame, playing the part of the vengeful and fiercely protective mother of Grendel (a running joke is that she is always Grendel’s Mother, we never learn her name). Grendel himself, a deliciously camp performance by Philip Lee, hasn’t an aggressive bone in his body. Indeed he loses several of his unaggressive ones when Beowulf tugs off his left arm. Grendel continues to trot round with a little backpack hung with tiny Teletubbies and horns like peeled bananas – he just wants to make friends. He and Beowulf strike up a friendship. Is there something of a bromance going on here? But it takes Wiglaff and a night camping under the stars to persuade Beowulf of his true nature.
The original epic poem ends with death and a grand funeral. Luckily this show has a far more cheerful conclusion. All the ends are sewn up and even Grendel’s Mother finds an old flame.
Runs until 8 January 2022