by Ella Hickson.
Royal and Derngate (Royal auditorium) Guildhall Road NN1 1DP To 4 January 2014.
10.30am 2-4, 9-12 Dec.
115pm 6 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 24, 26-28, 31 Dec, 3, 4 Jan.
2.15pm 2-5, 16-18, 22, 23, 29, 30 Dec, 2 Jan.
5.15pm 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 24, 26-28, 31 Dec, 3, 4 Jan.
7.15pm 5, 16-18, 22, 23, 29, 30 Dec, 2 Jan.
Audio-described 10 Dec 2.15pm, Captioned 29 Dec 7.15pm (+ Touch Tour).
BSL Signed 9 Dec 2.15pm.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 01604 624811.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 29 November.
Most gripping when most serious.
For long Northampton’s Royal Theatre was held captive at Christmas by the ‘traditional family pantomime’. Then, when the larger Derngate grew all around it and mopped-up the audience for biggish name panto, the Royal turned to plays adapted from cosily familiar stories involving Dalmatians, Wardrobes or Willows.
If Ella Hickson’s Merlin turns out the first step in a progress transforming old stories into new plays, it will be a hopeful development in the Christmas theatre market. There are songs, and there is visual humour, even a pet dragon, but they seem perfunctory compared with the concentration on story and character development embodied elsewhere in her script.
The towering book-cases around the stage and the dark medieval stone colours of Yannis Thavoris’s set also suggest a serious involvement with human adventures. And the Arthurian stories, varied and psychologically complex, are a good breeding-ground for such drama.
Which is also aimed at a young person’s view of the world. The mark of a sympathetic character in the script is that they are searching for their own identity and place within the world. The ones who think they are sure of themselves are the ones riding for a fall. In this way Hickson’s Merlin – through the reluctant magician, the king-to-be and the independent minded wild-child who awaits appreciation – places individuality and self-searching above complacent confidence.
What it doesn’t do is provide them with fully individual existences. Merlin, Arthur and Gwen represent dilemmas and decisions rather than expressing them; the nature of the inward quest is transparent, rather than embodied in fully-conceived characters.
Similarly, Liam Steel’s production handles all moods successfully on their own terms without binding the various tones into a unity. The piece divides into adventures, written with commitment, and separate set-pieces involving more absurd characters, which seem rather dutiful. And, even at best, the script tends to simplify feelings within the limits of modern teen-speak, handling them in a way which mimics rather than resonates linguistically.
Still, it’s a step forward in adventurous Christmas programming at the Royal. And, famously, even journeys of a thousand miles begin with one step.
Arthur: James Clay.
Viv/Nivienne: Imogen Daines.
Garotte/Footman Carac: Tom Giles.
Merlin: Will Merrick.
Scintillata: Charlotte Mills.
King Uther/King Lot: Fergus O’Donnell.
Tree/Guard: Katherine Toy.
Gwen: Francesca Zoutewelle.
Director: Liam Steel.
Designer: Yannis Thavoris.
Lighting: Tim Lutkin.
Sound/Composer/Arranger: Jon Nicholls.
Musical Director: Katherine Toy.
Projections: Benjamin Walden.
Dialect coach: Martin McKellan.
Fight director: Kate Waters.
Assistant director: Jack Lowe.