Writer: Ella Hickson
Music: Jon Nicholls
Director: Liam Steel
Reviewer: Natasha Hegarty
This original play has been co-produced by the Royal and Derngate as part of their Made in Northampton programme. Director Liam Steel, who is responsible for all the musical staging and choreography for the film adaptation of Les Miserables, takes on a classic tale of fantasy, adventure and mythology with this production.
Merlin is a story based on some of the traditional Arthurian characters of the Round Table and is retold for children in a delightful coming-of-age story. Best friends Merlin, Arthur and Guinevere — or Gwen as she is known in this production – are trying their best to stay together despite life pulling them all in different directions. Prince Arthur, is coming to terms with the burden that he will one day become king of the land, Merlin is trying to hide his magical powers that threaten to alienate him and Princess Gwen, is the glue that holds them all together. The three main leads are joined by a host of other characters throughout including kings and knights and also a delightful puppet dragon, who steals all the scenes in which he appears.
Will Merrick as the bumbling, uncomfortable Merlin is endearing to watch and believable. as the wizard in training, though the scariest moments in the play happen around him while he is experimenting with his magic and are quite frightening for the younger children. James Clay as the handsome Prince Arthur and Francesca Zoutewelle as strong and feisty princess Gwen are both delightful. The chemistry between the three friends is strong right from the beginning and is one of the strongest aspects of the whole production. They all interact well with the other characters, but ultimately they are drawn to each other.
Another highlight of the production is Yanis Thavoris’ inventive staging. With bookshelves from floor to ceiling that incorporate hidden doors and cubbies that are used for easy access to props, it’s not traditional to the period, but works perfectly. It could easily be a hidden corner of the Hogwarts library.
The sword fights and battle scenes are choreographed well by Kate Waters and are a hit with the audience. And Ella Hickson’s script doesn’t leave all the swashbuckling excitement to the boys either. Gwen proves herself just as strong as the knights and kings and Charlotte Mills as Scintillata surprisingly turns out to be a strong female character. At first she seems like just a comic relief character looking for a husband, but ends up going from lady-in-waiting to warrior who holds her own in an epic sword fight. She is one of the audience’s favourites due to her fantastic one-liners and ultimate character progression.
As charming as Merlin is, the play isn’t without its issues. Most of the musical numbers could do with stronger vocals, though incorporating the actors playing live instruments throughout saves it somewhat. Hickson’s script is very complicated at times and could do with condensing down as it seems quite long for a production aimed at children. Steel’s production could have benefited with being much tighter and slicker – at times it is silly and panto-like with the characters running on and off stage seemingly without any need.
Still, it is full of laughs and who doesn’t love a happily ever after?
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until: January 4th, 2015