We usually take our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, to the festive season play at the Royal in Northampton because it’s always a child-friendly but adult-friendly-too, non-panto production that takes a well-known story and brings it to life. When we sent out our invitation (in secret code of course) for this year’s offering of Merlin, the reaction was lukewarm. “Maybe we’ll pass this year” came the official response. Perhaps the story of Merlin, King Arthur and jousting knights just doesn’t do it for some 13- and 11-year old girls. But Mrs Chrisparkle and I aren’t deprived of our Christmassy treats so easily, so undeterred we sat in the middle of Row C last night, looking expectantly at the shimmering letters projected on the screen curtain, ready to be transported back to a fantasy world of myth and magic. And enormously entertaining it was too! Characters you can identify with, a funny script that still took the darker side of the story seriously, some very strong performances and it all looks and sounds fantastic.
I’m no expert on Merlin. I’ve never read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, (have you?) and I never saw the TV series starring Colin Morgan. I don’t even think I’ve seen Disney’s Sword in the Stone – I’m feeling a bit deprived now. So I’ve nothing to benchmark this Merlin against, but I would guess he’s slightly more the popular fiction version. Young Arthur, Merlin and Gwen are pals, larking around in the Court of King Uther, but all the fun has to stop when the King orders Arthur to leave Caerleon and head for Lothian, land of the unprepossessing King Lot, be victorious in joust and win the hand of his daughter, the fair Princess Scintillata, to ensure peace throughout the land. But what they don’t take into account is Merlin’s affinity for a spot of dark arts magic – which King Uther has made illegal. Will Merlin resist being able to do a Harry Potter? Will this help or hinder Arthur’s quest? I’m sure you know already, but I’m not going to tell you.
Yannis Thavoris’ set featuring wall to wall books gives the immediate impression of great learning and knowledge. Merlin’s world is a veritable library, providing the perfect environment for his magic experiments. The literary theme is continued by having props made out of book pages, like the lining on the back rest of the King’s throne, which is rather clever; and the way the library converts to the site of the jousting contest is simply inspired! Does it matter that some of the books are obviously those Readers’ Digest ones from the middle of the 20th century? Probably not. It is, after all, a play all about magic. The costumes are excellent, suggesting both nobility and sorcery, the special effects are fun – Mabinogion the dragon is particularly cute – and John Nicholls’ music is terrific. Not only the introductory and background themes, but also the songs that are interspersed with the dialogue throughout the play. They have great tunes and very enjoyable arrangements. It’s not often you come out of a play – that isn’t really a musical – wanting to hear the songs again.
Ella Hickson’s script is an excellent blend of the serious and the comic, with the main characters providing a lot of incidental humour in their roles as teenagers becoming adults, and getting to grips with all those adult-type emotion-things. There’s a wonderful scene between Merlin and Viv, Arthur’s intended sister-in-law, when, discovering they have something in common, they almost kiss – but don’t – and he can’t quite work out why, and she knows full well. Poor Merlin – girls are always much more advanced at that age. Both Mrs C and I loved the use of modern language in the historic context – it makes for some very amusing juxtapositions; Merl and Art, what a team they make. There’s a moment when Merlin is being interrogated – by a tree, naturally – to prove his mettle, his self-will, his inner strength, his quest to become a real man; a rousing, encouraging, motivational speech, which ends with a thud and his being told “now bog off and save the world”. I bet you don’t see that in the history books.
Will Merrick’s Merlin is an excellent study of someone who grows in confidence and ability from a – shall we say – difficult start in life to a hero. Not only is he the boy becoming the man, he also makes the several jumps from commoner to wizard, from pal to royal advisor; in fact from Confused of Caerleon to Chief Consultant of Camelot. I loved how his sense of innocence transformed into a sense of duty. He’s a great contrast with James Clay’s Arthur, who is all young-hero-in-the-making in comparison with Merlin’s rather shifty anxiety. Mr Clay gives a very believable portrayal of a young chap to whom greatness will come if he’s man enough to deal with it. Francesca Zoutewelle’s Gwen is also a great study of a tomboy becoming a woman, in the constant company of a prince and a magician; a fun pal to have around but who might have some other charms too. She’s not exactly torn between two lovers but the hint of it is there.
The whole cast are excellent. I remembered Fergus O’Donnell as a brilliant Malvolio in Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, and here he is full of decent kingliness as Uther and humorous bluster as King Lot, as well as an unsuspecting knight partial to a bit of cheese. I loved Charlotte Mills as the wonderfully appalling Scintillata, a calculatingly mischievous mantrap who’s had a list of suitors under her pillow since kindergarten; a vision in pink atop her tower, demanding knights spill blood over her (not literally, perhaps), but who changes her tune and her fortune and ends up closer to Xena, Warrior Princess than Barbie.
Tom Giles gave a brilliantly camp comic portrayal of her French suitor, the buffoon Garotte, with a kilt like a mini-skirt, barking out orders and proving himself to be the cad and the bounder we had all along suspected. I also loved Imogen Daines’ spiky performance as Viv, presented as early Scots Goth, full of attitude but not entirely trustworthy; and her interpretation of a somewhat laconic Lady of the Lake was a delight. Katherine Toy fills in many of the minor roles, including making a wonderfully Jobsworth royal guard, and does fantastic work as Musical Director. When the cast all come on for their curtain call, there’s a sense of real surprise that there are only eight actors who together have presented so many characters and so much activity. They must work very hard – I don’t think any of them are going to put on weight over Christmas.
I thought it was a magically fun show, hitting just the right note of festive caperings whilst respecting the story’s more serious heritage. I’d be happy to see it a second time, if only to listen to the songs again. It’s on at the Royal until 4th January and would be a perfect Yuletide alternative to panto for anyone who is a teenager, is looking forward to being a teenager, or who enjoyed being a teenager. Now that’s magic!