Merlin and the Winter King

Karen Louise Hebden
Derby Playhouse
(2004)

Ben Roberts as Merlin

Just over twelve months ago many theatregoers in Derby were disgruntled to learn that the Playhouse was scrapping its traditional pantomime. But when they saw A Christmas Carol they knew the theatre had made an excellent choice of a replacement because they were presented with a magical evening full of Christmas cheer.

This year there's been even less enthusiasm for the yuletide offering because virtually everyone I spoke to thought the Playhouse couldn't match the success of A Christmas Carol, especially with the legendary tale of Arthur, the boy who became king by pulling a sword from a stone.

The creative team of Karen Hebden, who adapted Dickens' favourite last year, and director Stephen Edwards have collaborated again on Merlin. Local actor Ben Roberts who was Scrooge twelve months ago is back to play the lead. The similarities end there.

A Christmas Carol was a wonderful production for all the family; Merlin and the Winter King is a much heavier piece of drama which definitely isn't suitable for small children.

The Arthurian legend is one of the most spellbinding tales in literature and has provided inspiration for numerous authors. But here much of the enchantment has disappeared in the transformation from page to stage.

Much of Merlin is set around Christmastime and Arthur actually became king on New Year's Day. But the tale could be told at any time of year; it doesn't have anything special which demands that it be staged in the festive season.

Merlin is superbly staged, well acted and has more special effects than Santa has presents in his grotto. But not even Merlin can conjure up enough magic to make this a Christmas cracker. The script is often long-winded, the action ponderous and the songs are like dirges - you won't be humming any of them on your way home.

For the second year running, Roberts is exceptional. As Merlin he is a commanding figure, greatly respected, wise, loyal and trusting. It's a huge part; Roberts rises to the challenge of portraying a selfless servant who sympathetically puts aside personal ambition for the good of the nation.

Merlin conjures up snow, fire and even a nutritious breakfast. But despite his mystical qualities there's not enough humour or Christmas spirit.

There's a crescendo at the end of the first half when the Lady of the Lake appears with Excalibur and another towards the end when Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone. But there is too little excitement in between.

James Hedley injects youthful enthusiasm as Arthur, Laura Sanchez in her first professional engagement is feisty as his sister Morgan and youngsters from the Egg Theatre Academy provide charm and innocence as the brother and sister in their formative years.

It's one of those productions in which the cast and crew give their all but there's something missing in the components they have to work with.

Early on Emrys, who becomes King Arthur, is listening to Merlin telling him a story. The youngster complains that there's something lacking. He points out: "A dragon would have livened things up." By the end of the evening I was inclined to agree with him.

"Merlin and the Winter King" runs until January 22nd

Reviewer: Steve Orme