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Review: BEOWULF – THE PANTO! – Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington

BEOWULF – THE PANTO!
Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Road, Islington N1 3DT

I entered the theatre with some trepidation, wondering how Beowulf could possibly work as a pantomime, but full of respect for any company brave enough to even attempt such a feat. I was very pleasantly surprised – Charles Court Opera have done a far better job of it than I had ever imagined.

The show opens with the Spirit of Good Cheer (performed excellently by Sian Winstanley) feeding us the story. This unusual method of opening a panto feels a little strange, but sets the scene well and reminds us that this is a classic piece of literature. Based on the Anglo-Saxon 3182 line poem, there is a certain amount of artistic licence taken in this production, turning a classic and fairly heavy poem into a family friendly pantomime, but the essential elements are all still present.

The often drunk King Hrothgar (played excellently, with Simon Masterton-Smith’s commanding voice, great comedic timing and facial expressions providing plenty of laughs) calls for help after his kingdom is repeatedly raided by Grendel (Philip Lee) to feed the dragon that he and his mother keep asleep. Being scared of sheep, he captures humans instead for the beast, which results in Beowulf tearing off his left arm and him appearing with ever more ridiculous household appliances in its place. Beowulf (performed to great comedic effect by Kevin Kyle), accompanied by an unlikely crowd (including his sidekick, Wiglaf – played by Amy J Payne, complete with painted-on beard), sets off on his quest to slay the dragon, and win the heart of Princess Hrothmund (Catrine Kirkman - who possesses a beautiful voice, and gives many laughs with her great comic acting).

All the traditional panto elements are present in this piece, and the evening gives plenty of laughs, from tittering through to big deep belly laughs, and several “oh my gosh, they did NOT just do that” moments! There is plenty of audience participation (including a hilarious food fight between audience and cast), more double entendres than you can shake a stick at and some excellent comedic song numbers, including Bonnie Tyler, Eminem, Bill Withers, Les Miserables and Dirty Dancing parodies (to name just a few), many of which feature puppets as backing singers.
As in every good panto, there is also a grand dame - Grendel’s Mother, played to camp perfection by John Savournin (who also wrote, directed and choreographed). Savournin could easily steal the whole show if the rest of the cast were not so excellent. His excellent baritone is given the chance to shine in several places and, believe me, it does.

The imaginative wood-panelled set (James Perkins) and lighting design (Nicholas Holdridge) produce some good effects throughout, particularly in a scene where the dragon attacks the Hall. Martina Trottman’s costume design is flawless, with each costume speaking volumes about the character of its wearer.

Also very deserving of a mention here is the excellent three-piece band, who remain on stage throughout the performance. Drummer Ben Calvert has performed with Calvin Harris and Killing Joke, among others; and the Eaton Young Piano Duo (David Eaton and James Young) have performed in many high-profile venues, such as Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, St Martin-in-the-fields, etc). Eaton and Young also perform the roles of the Royal courtiers Unferth and Aeschere.

In short, plenty of laughs, songs, and general tomfoolery, all wrapped up in a wonderful piece of classic literature. If pantos are not usually your thing, you will enjoy this for its translation of the poem. If classic literature is not your thing, you will enjoy it for the panto element. A remarkably clever and imaginative piece that deserves to play to a full house every night.

Beowulf – the Panto! plays at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until 8 January. Tickets £10-£20 from www.rosemarybranch.co.uk

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