Reviewer's rating

Panto is its own art form, and not an easy one to get right.  Whether you are aiming at children or adults you must observe the tried and tested formulas – there has to be a hero and heroine, a best boy, a panto dame, and a villain; and they all need to stumble their way through a testing quest. There should be outrageous costumes, plenty of spectacle and flashy stagecraft, with lashings of horrible puns, and plenty of audience interaction and catchy sing-alongs.  Then after achieving that target you need to pepper the text with contemporary updating and topical references, while also showing an awareness of modern sensitivities on race and gender not generally catered for in traditional panto stereotypes. This is quite a tall order for any script writer, and John Savournin, together with composer David Eaton, rise artfully to the challenge.

Deliciously channelling ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones’, this genial romp through Beowulf’s tussle with the dragon, Grendel, hits all the familiar targets and adds a few original touches of its own. Beowulf turns out to be all breastplate and no codpiece when it comes to fighting, leaving all the traditional aggressive macho swagger to Princess Hrothmund. Instead of rescuing a princess who needs no rescuing, he is better at discovering his sensitive side, first by making friends with Grendel and then discovering a new empathy for his devoted sidekick Wiglaff. Grendel, far from being fire-breathing dragon, is a gentle mummy’s boy; and lest this seem altogether too sweet, then incisive villainy and panto-damery are rolled into one in in the form of Grendel’s conspiring and shape-shifting mother. A quest for a sword and a dragon ends harmoniously in a song called ‘All the Colours of the Rainbow’, putting the world to rights at the end of two acts of charming, deft, convention-reversing escapism.

There were a few raggedy moments of ensemble and continuity, but these will doubtless disappear as the show beds in for its long run. The audience can look forward to thirteen excellent, memorable songs: David Eaton has given the cast some fine solo opportunities and set up some spicy confrontations too. There is a memorable vocal slug fest between the Princess and Grendel’s mother in Act Two, and plenty of arch musical references along the way – the melody at the end of Act 1 makes a definite nod towards Sondheim’s ‘The Miller’s Song.’ Stewart J Charlesworth deserves great credit for some fabulously wacky costumes which give the actors plenty of opportunities to swish, swash and sashay. He is also responsible for a set which is both flexibly practical and contains hidden surprises.

All the cast are excellent in their roles, singing out robustly and camping it up outrageously. Matthew Kellett, in the title role, finds pathos as well as fake swagger despite (or because of) a towering wig straight out of Bridgerton. Emily Cairns, as Wiglaff, is the pick of the voices; Julia Mariko Smith, in the role of the no-nonsense Princess, generates most of the high-octane energy; and Philip Lee’s Grendel is Alan Bennett to his mother’s snarky Thora Hird. Every panto rests on its villain, and Jennie Jacobs, as Grendel’s mother, has wonderful comic timing and all the feisty body-language, and disdainful adlibbing to get the audience going.

Whatever kind of Christmas we are ultimately permitted, this panto should be on your agenda, whether for the family-friendly matinee version, or the slightly raunchier evening iteration. In the words of the song, you will learn to ‘Party like it’s 600 AD.’