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Beowulf: An Epic Panto at King’s Head Theatre

First impressions count, and so I’m not entirely convinced opening with a verse or two of indecipherable lyrics is the best way of establishing audience rapport at a panto. Such pointlessness is mercifully momentary in a show that maintains a contemporary soundtrack throughout. The narrative is compared to both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. Having sat through Beowulf: An Epic Panto, I have no idea how this is so, but at least the hyperbole goes with the hamminess and overplaying that comes with the pantomime genre.

L to R - Philip Lee (Grendel), Julia Mariko Smith (Princess Hrothmund), Emily Cairns (Wiglaff) and Matthew Kellett (Beowulf).
L to R – Philip Lee (Grendel), Julia Mariko Smith (Princess Hrothmund), Emily Cairns (Wiglaff) and Matthew Kellett (Beowulf).

This isn’t the only panto I’ve attended that could have had more in the way of audience participation: a call and response happened in the first half, but I don’t recall any in the second. A storyline in which antagonist characters largely turn out not to be dastardly devils means that moves towards peace and harmony begin much sooner than usual. On the other hand, the protagonists aren’t necessarily entirely noble either. Despite the show’s title, Princess Hrothmund (Julia Mariko Smith) takes the lead in going into battle, leaving Beowulf (Matthew Kellett) struggling to cope with someone else being lauded as the hero.

In the Old English story, he’s the brave one who slays monsters and ends up as king. Here, he is, in a word, a diplomat, forging alliances with the likes of Grendel (Philip Lee), who I could only deduce was a ‘monster’ because the princess declared him to be one. Both he and his mother, the (un)imaginatively named Grendel’s Mother (Jennie Jacobs) are in noticeably un-monstrous attire.

Touches of absurdism creep in occasionally. One of the songs is called ‘Party Like It’s 600 AD’, and Mother recalls “a night of passion in 469”. But there are references to ‘Strictly’ (as in Strictly Come Dancing) and the subscription streaming service Netflix, which even the most unassuming members of the audience were at best a bit baffled by. Then again, who goes to the panto to enjoy coherency and consistency?

Many of the songs (thirteen in all) are far from Strictly fare, occasionally taking on a nightclub feel but more often than not more in the style of chart music, the sort of thing one might hear on mainstream commercial radio stations. They did not, at least not to me, become overly irritating or insufferable, even if some other patrons reported afterwards that the music occasionally overpowered the actors’ voices, such that some lines weren’t quite as clear as they could have been.

I hasten to add there were no such issues from my own vantage point: if the occasional line was missed on account of raucous laughter from the audience, the production is hardly at fault for that. The markedly different approach to the usual methods by which good triumphs over evil is intriguing, as the range of emotions felt during the performance is noticeably narrower than it would be in a panto where the good ones were very good indeed and the bad ones were just plain evil. It’s a lot of fun nonetheless, and I came away with a sense of contentment and satisfaction. A surprisingly pleasant experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

In ‘Beowulf: An Epic Panto’, a co-production with the King’s Head Theatre, join Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a maelstrom of other fantastical characters, for this completely unmissable show, packed with mammoth musical numbers, and led by a colossally talented cast including many CCO favourites.

From Adult Only performances through to Children’s Matinees, Charles Court Opera’s biggest and best pantomime yet is perfect for families, couples, groups of friends and office parties. Don’t miss out on the ultimate Christmas cracker of a show.

Cast: Matthew Kellett, Philip Lee, Emily Cairns, Jennie Jacobs, Julia Mariko Smith with Kirsty McLean as swing.

Creative team: Written and Directed by John Savournin; Music, Lyrics, Musical Direction and Sound Design by David Eaton; Set and Costume Design by Stewart J Charlesworth with Associate Designer Elizabeth Greengrass; Lighting Design by Jo Palmer; and Choreography by David Hulston.

BEOWULF: An Epic Panto
26 November 2021 – 8 January 2022
King’s Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
Islington, London N1
www.kingsheadtheatre.com

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