Writer: Ella Hickson
Director: Liam Steel
Reviewer: David Jobson
Who says libraries aren’t fun?
This production company doesn’t think so in the Nuffield’s latest offering for the festive season, Merlin. Among the towering walls of bookshelves, the show is staged by a group of bespectacled, tweed-jacket-wearing librarians. An odd choice, but soon the level of imagination in Ella Hickson’s take on the Arthurian legend becomes apparent, as these staid librarians morph into wacky and amusing thespians.
The play follows the heroes we all know and love. Arthur, Guinevere, and of course, Merlin. But this isn’t your typical retelling of the legendary tale. Like the Merlin TV series, this is an alternative origins story
Arthur is prince and heir to King Lot. Merlin and Guinevere (or Gwen) are his childhood friends and we first meet them sneaking into the forbidden library. ‘Forbidden’ except Merlin has visited the library many times to investigate the magical secrets hidden within the books.
Played by Adam Welsh, the skinny little Merlin is a nerd at heart. Curious and clumsy, he has in his possession a magical stick with which he performs the magic forbidden by King Uther. Now a dragon is on the loose and King lot believes it can only be banished by the fulfilment of a prophecy to unite two kingdoms.
The first act does take a little while to get going as the opening scene is laden with exposition. But soon the mood lightens and we are drawn into a heartwarming story about breaking away from what others expect and just being true to oneself
Eager to please his father, it is Arthur’s duty to marry Princess Scintillata, and Fred Lancaster plays him as a youngster struggling to accept his responsibilities as heir. He tries to put his friends first and help them, without criticising, when they are in trouble.
Gwen meanwhile is played by a feisty Kayla Meikle who defies the conventions of female behaviour to be Arthur’s bodyguard and the best sword fighter.
Ella Hickson has already defied the conventional damsel stereotype in the RSC’s current production of Wendy and Peter Pan. Here the show lightly makes fun of the spoilt Princess Scintella. A typical damsel in distress but played with self-aware hilarity by Aryana Ramkhalawon. Watching her purposely feign the damsel guise to make Arthur rescue her from her tower (even though there are stairs) is a highlight of the show
There’s something for everyone here. Princes, princesses, bookworms, and even giant rabbits. Maybe the show’s message may be lost on the young ones but that is made up by the inventive production values easily make up for this.. The second half particularly has some fantastic lighting thanks to designer Andy Purves, and the climactic battle is a marvel with some ingenious puppetry.
The cast gives their all providing the music while playing multiple rôles. Joshua Manning plays both the majestic King Uther and the rowdy Scottish King Lot. Rob Castell meanwhile entertains as the foppish French knight, Garotte. Only the singing could do with work, though the songs are merely functional.
Overall, though, this is one magical show worth seeing this Christmas. A fun and inventive alternative to your typical pantomime.
Runs until 3January 2016 | Image: Luke MacGregor