REVIEW: Arthur/Merlin, Actors Church, Covent Garden

This folksy and thoughtful take on the legend makes the most of its environment but can lose its way in terms of the plot.

(c)Steve Gregson

It has to be said, whenever there is a production that takes place in the beautiful settings of the Actors Church in Covent Garen every creative team really uses the environment to beautiful effect – and with this imaginative retelling of the legend of King Arthur and Merlin it is no different.

Written by Reuben Johnson, Arthur/Merlin is a folksy inspired adaptation of the famous story that sees Arthur (or Spud as he is known here) embarking on a quest to help heal a divided nation and to a destiny he didn’t know he had, with themes of segregation, prejudice and poverty running through the piece.This can make it seem a little heavy for younger audiences but there is still plenty to enjoy from Paul-Ryan Carberry’s production.

From the mysterious woods in which Merlin first comes across Arthur and the various incidents along the way to the famous pulling of the sword in the stone, Johnson’s piece is very reliant on the use of spoken word and music to convey the magic of the story. The spoken word element in which Merlin uses language as opposed to a magic wand is really effective and you can tell it makes an impact on the younger members of the audience to highlight the power of language – the moment in which Merlin encourages Arthur to see the good in everyone and everything feels really special and light-hearted.

But it is also the way in which Carberry’s production makes the most of the environment that makes the show feel magical, such as the way in which pears are hung from the tree for the cast to pick or the way in which they scamper around the garden that allows the audience to use their imagination. Meanwhile, the cast interactions with the younger members of the audience equally put a smile on the faces of the audience as well as making it feel like an intimate performance.

The first act is perhaps the stronger out of the two – filled with more fun and joy in comparison with the second which seems to focus a lot on morals and serious issues that can distract from the adventurous nature of the adaption (and can make it feel slightly too long). It can mean that it feels as though the show is torn in two as to which age range it was aiming for.

This being said, the cast are all delightful to watch bringing this story to life.Michael Elcock’s good intentioned but occasionally flawed Arthur who has plenty of lessons to learn is suitably endearing and well matched with Kate Donnachie’s increasingly exasperated and intelligent Merlin, who has great energy (particularly conveying the spoken word elements of the script), while Gina Jamieson and Lloyd Gorman provide excellent and engaging support in a number of roles.

There is certainly plenty of potential in this new and thoughtful adaptation of the legend – but I can’t help but feel if it is aimed for a young audience it needs a better balance between adventure and giving Arthur a central lesson to learn in the course of his quest rather than complicating it with too many moral issues.

By Emma Clarendon

Arthur/Merlin continues to play at the Actors Church until the 22nd August.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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