St George and the Dragon
Carl Heap and Tom Morris
Beggarsbelief and Warwick Arts Centre
Lyric, Hammersmith, and touring
Beggarsbelief has a track record of producing epic stories suitable for families but without the big (and worryingly expensive) production values (previous shows have included Ben Hur and Jason and the Argonauts). This tale of George and the Dragon is more of a challenge because the story itself is less reliably documented. In fact, there are several different versions about (one says that George came from Coventry, another that he was a Roman soldier, another that he was a Crusader, and yet another that he was the saviour of a Libyan Princess). Beggarsbelief's answer was to merge all these stories together into a one big story extolling the virtues of an heroic George - righter of wrongs, fighter of evil, culminating in the all-important dragon-slaying.
Given the disparate nature of the stories, the adaptation is largely successful with a script that moves along coherently and at a fine pace. And lest anyone should worry about the jingoistic overtones inherent in any story about George the Crusader, the whole tone of the piece is a peaceful and inclusive one. The Holy War is depicted in a tongue-in-cheek manner (with balloons for weapons), the victors and vanquished treat each other with mutual respect. George (played by Michael Cox) is unlikely hero material, justifiably feeling bad about all the corpses in his wake, plaintively saying he wanted to kill dragons, not people. Eventually, he meets the statue of Saint George who points out that the Dragon is merely a symbol of evil and that George ought to concentrate on getting rid of disharmony.
Thanks to Miriam Nabarro's set and Mila Sanders' costumes, there are plenty of modern touches to draw in viewers who are more used to watching TV than being in a theatre. The play opens with a set that looks remarkably like the market at Eastender's Walford. Umbrellas and pans pass for swords and shields while beds double as canopies and battlements. There is plenty of opportunity for the audience to get involved (especially when the play is in danger of hitting a tedious patch). The part where people are recruited from the audience to be fodder for the dragon by drawing lots, owes something to the X-Factor and similar reality shows.
In the tradition of travelling players, many of the actors are acrobats and musicians. They work well as an ensemble and their enthusiasm never flags, particularly in dealing with the younger members of the audience. Nurse Agatha is hilariously played by the bearded Edward Woodall while Nadia Morgan makes an assertive King. At the climax, the Dragon gets a spectacularly satisfying comeuppance when the cast literally play with fire.
Despite all this, the play is at least half an hour too long, with several repetitive sections and not even the enthusiasm of the players and Carl Heap's imaginative direction could disguise this.
It is not unusual these days on entering a theatre, for the audience to be assailed by cast members before the production has even begun and asked to join in. Beggarsbelief however, have taken this to a new height, performing a full fifteen minute mummers play in the foyer before the play proper has started.
I'm not entirely sure whether this is a good idea or a bad one. For a start, a lot of the audience members won't have arrived, or may be buying their interval drinks or otherwise engaged. It also causes people anxiety as to whether they've missed a vital piece of plot if they've come in the middle of it. To be fair to the cast, they spend the next few minutes once we're in the auditorium recapping what's happened - but why not just start the story when the curtain goes up?
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart