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King Arthur and the Twelfth Knight

by on 22 December 2022

The Bard Goes to Camelot

King Arthur and the Twelfth Knight

by James Rushbrooke

The Questors Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 31st December

Review by Steve Mackrell

Questors has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation for producing outstanding pantomimes and, after an absence of three years, this season’s offering, King Arthur and the Twelfth Knight certainly doesn’t disappoint.

This festive season has seen a number of productions which have broken out from the strict pantomime straight jacket of familiar characters and plot lines, by introducing more creative and innovative ideas.  This has certainly been achieved by writer James Rushbrooke whose pedigree includes Tomcat, winner of the 2015 Papatango New Writing Prize.  In this original variation on the traditional panto theme, we witness a witty collusion between the mythical world of Camelot with that of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

King Arthur was, of course, a legendary king of Britain and wielder of the equally legendary sword Excalibur.  The myth also sees Arthur as the founder of the Knights of the Round Table, among whose members perhaps Sir Lancelot is the most familiar.  However, the setting of the play is not in Arthur’s imaginary castle but in the humbler surroundings of W5.  In fact, we are located in Lord Drayton’s court in downtown Ealing where the courtiers await the arrival of King Arthur and Guinevere’s retinue.  The King is seeking to find the mystical Twelfth Knight of the Round Table.  Of course, nothing is off-limits in the forgotten world of sixth century Britain so, the word Knight can happily lose its initial letter in what then becomes an affectionate nod to Twelfth Night.  In this case, Shakespeare’s original shipwrecked twin (Viola) becomes Lord Drayton’s daughter (Esme) who is convinced she could be the missing Twelfth Knight of the Round Table.  To help in the deception, Esme changes identity and cross dresses as a boy and so follows a case of mistaken identity and magic potions to make you fall in love – oh, yes, it does!!

Of course, the economics of modern day pantomime depend on delivering successful all-round family entertainment that can amuse adults while enchanting children at the same time.  Without the interest of children in the audience – panto is dead.  Questors seem to understand this and, in King Arthur, have a worthy production that entertains on many levels.

However, Christmas isn’t Christmas without being a bit of a Scrooge, so a bit of “bah humbug” first.  It was a bit disappointing that the accompanying music to the panto wasn’t live.  The pre-recorded music tended to inhibit the cast and prohibited them from fully exploring their songs.  Secondly, the pitch of some of the singing fell a little flat at times and thirdly, although there were many clever ideas in the script, there was still a tendency to fall back on some old, tired dialogue.  Some of the puns were too obvious (celery/salary) although I did like the new name for a chamber pot being Pu-tin.  Also fit for the recycling bin were metaphors like “being out of place like a meat sandwich at a bar mitzvah” plus a scene where the cast run aimlessly around the stage in a long line to the music from the closing credits of the old Benny Hill shows.  Perhaps also some dubious malapropisms (reptile dysfunction), weak innuendo (your wimple goes floppy) and at least a couple of lines in somewhat questionable taste for a family audience.  But hey – this is panto – and being “silly” is part of the rulebook.

So, far outweighing these niggles were some very powerful positives.  For a start, there was a versatile cast including seventeen principals supported by a children’s ensemble, assorted woodland creatures and four puppeteers.  Stand out performances included James Goodden’s dame which was sheer perfection – never over-acting and always in control and, incidentally, congratulations to his quick-change dresser.  As for the villains, Russell Fleet as the Dark Lord was eccentric and scary, Kerri Logan’s Morgana bewitched and dazzled and was well supported by her evil sidekick Mordred (Sally Parker).  Mike Hadjipateras as Lord Drayton and Mark Redrup as King Arthur clearly relished their roles and in the ensemble numbers both gave committed and strong performances.  Also enjoyable was Alex Marker with his laid-back interpretation of Merlin and his off-beat comments such as the elasticity of the fourth wall.  Especially true, given director Rory Hobson’s enthusiasm to bring the actors up close and personal to the audience with the actors using various parts of the auditorium.  Enjoyable performances also from Frances Sherwin as Lady Drayton and Dumitru Stratulat as the vain Sir Lancelot.

Among the highlights were the ensemble numbers and especially the song and dance routines such as They Had It Coming, Good Morning Baltimore (Drayton Court) and Master of the House.  Lyricist Helen Cooper’s substitute lyrics were ably meshed into the songs and storyline and much credit must go to choreographer Sara Page for the dance routines.  However, the number which raised the roof was the thumping rap performed by Russell Fleet’s Dark Lord.  Fantastic staging, electrifying lighting and a powerful performance – simply a terrific production number.

Another success to mention, this time especially appreciated by the younger members of the audience, was the use of various puppets which were masterfully operated by their puppeteers together with a magnificent model of a dragon which no doubt stretched the budget even further.  The costumes, as expected at Questors, were also first class.  Looking at the programme credits, there were some ten people engaged on costume making and their hard work certainly contributed to this colourful and well-dressed production.   

Finally, director Rory Hobson and writer James Rushbrooke must take credit for a first rate panto and for bringing fresh life into the genre – gone were the old storylines and familiar panto characters, gone were the old song-sheets and slapstick scenes.  However, not all elements were jettisoned – and rightly so – hence the “behind you” and the “Oh no, he isn’t” were retained and, indeed, so was the Dame.  King Arthur and the Twelfth Knightbrings a refreshing and welcome change for a panto and great credit to Questors for such an innovative show. 

If panto be the food of love, play on.

Steve Mackrell, December 2022

Photography by Carla Evans

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