Beowulf, an Epic Panto – King’s Head Theater, London

Writer and Director: John Savournin

Music and lyrics: David Eaton

The defeat of the Anglo-Saxon warrior Beowulf against the monster Grendel is not the obvious stuff of pantomime, but that of Charles Court Opera. Beowulf, an epic panto remove it. The cast of six strikes way above their weight – their powerful vocals, their sassy dance. John Savournin’s storyline is packed with comedic one-liners, and its storytelling is tight and fun. The songs of composer and lyricist David Eaton effortlessly extend across an assortment of contemporary styles, each compelling. The daring opening number, Thaet Waes God Cyning, is truly Old English.

We are in Scandinavia in the past. Sneaky references to the Lord of the Rings and Game Of Thrones give instant context. The seemingly banal ensemble comes to life regularly with an imaginative video projection. Snow falls at the beginning of the story. The textured curves of the backdrop then become the waves of a wintry sea that Beowulf dives into on his epic journey to retrieve the stolen sacred sword. Best of all is the backdrop’s magical transformation into a dragon: clever lighting reveals that the dragon’s outlines have always been there. Smoke rises from its nostrils, its eyes and mouth are red. It’s a spectacular moment directed by decorator and costume designer Stewart J Charlesworth.

Beowulf, we feel, is not much of a hero. Performed brilliantly by Matthew Kellett in a puffy wig, he struts and takes poses – full mouth and no pants. He is there with his devoted companion Wiglaff (a touching Emily Cairns). Wiglaff confides his tender feelings to Beowulf, but Beowulf is sure of his fate: he will save the princess and marry her. But he did not count with Princess Hrothmund. Julia Mariko Smith, an Ariane Grande lookalike, possesses all the martial skills that Beowulf lacks. She’s out of her league.

Jennie Jacobs is formidable as the Lady of the Pantomime, playing the role of Grendel’s vengeful and fiercely protective mother (a common joke is that she’s still Grendel’s mother, we never learn her name). Grendel himself, a performance delightfully portrayed by Philip Lee, has no aggressive bones in his body. Indeed, he loses several of his non-aggressive when Beowulf pulls on his left arm. Grendel continues to trot with a small backpack hanging from tiny Teletubbies and horns like peeled bananas – he just wants to make friends. He and Beowulf become friends. Is there something of a bromance going on here? But it takes Wiglaff and a night of camping under the stars to persuade Beowulf of his true nature.

The original epic poem ends with death and a great burial. Fortunately, this show has a much happier conclusion. All the ends are sewn together and even Grendel’s mother finds an old flame.

Until January 8, 2022

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