The Legend of King Arthur

Mike Kenny
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

The cast of The Legend of King Arthur Credit: York Theatre Royal
Niall Costigan, Sarah Vezmar and Peter Basham in The Legend of King Arthur Credit: York Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal's latest attempt at creating a summer blockbuster to match the financial success of the pantomime is a massive design and management job of the sort experimented with in recent years in such productions as The Wind in the Willows.

This show takes to a new extreme the idea of converting the whole building, and Catherine Chapman's design, under Artistic Director Damian Cruden's supervision, certainly succeeds in turning the available space into a world of quests and excitement. The actor-musicians stroll the foyer before the show, leading families backstage into lands of dragons and mystical lakes, and regaling the audience with well-executed musical tales.

It's almost a shame when the production has to start, and sadly the show never quite manages to capture the same excitement and immersion, despite its distinctly pantomimic leanings and interactions.

The live music adds much during as well as before the show, though lyrically the songs are nothing to write home about—somewhat bland approximations of the pop musical genre.

But the excellent design work continues onto the stage itself, and the enormous and pristine castle wall sweeps back from the stage to fade into more authentic worn stone, suggesting the depths and distances beyond—the auditorium, like the foyer, is successfully transformed.

So the experience as a whole is lavishly detailed and no doubt holds thrills for its target market. It's a shame, though, that the play itself is the least exciting part. Mike Kenny can usually be relied on to deliver a witty, clear, elegant script—witness his work with Tutti Frutti theatre, and the equally excellent Railway Children and Peter Pan. But the magic hasn't worked here. Instead we get a jarring mishmash of styles, veering between soap opera conflict, epic portent and occasionally queasy Carry On humour.

Whereas Kenny is usually succinct and pared back, here there is too much overwritten to-ing and fro-ing, with several scenes progressing slowly or not at all. Arthur (Niall Costigan) and Guenevere's (Sarah Vezmar) argument over their tortured private live is one example, and elsewhere both the professionals and the young community actors struggle to make sense of some repetitive dialogue and abrupt shifts in characters' intentions.

A lot of the set-piece moments, too, look fine in concept but are let down by niggling flaws in execution. A lot hinges on the impressively large-scale projections (by audio visual designer Mark Beasley). The idea of onstage characters moving in sync with their film counterparts is fun, but difficult to execute well.

It feels as though everything has been thrown at the production without really getting to grips with the arc of the story: the production in general struggles through the crunching gears. At moments of high drama, such as when Morgana (Michelle Long) tells Arthur he fathered an illegitimate son by her, Guinevere's simple exclamation 'what?' draws giggles from the audience, where nothing in the production or story suggests this should be the intention.

So the audience is palpably confused by the collision of styles and of levels of seriousness. Matthew Rixon as Merlin is a prime embodiment of this, moving from upright lecturer to pantomime dame to powerful advisor. Merlin is of course a shape-shifter, who regresses to infancy as the play goes on, but these moves are at times entirely ungrounded in what's going on around him, and leave the audience often uncertain of the focus of the story being told.

It could be argued that younger children will simply sit back and enjoy the mix of silliness, music and action sequences, without worrying about the lack of understandable characters or consequential plot. But with source material as archetypal and powerful as the Arthurian legends, this absence of essential storytelling is the production's most fundamental flaw.

Reviewer: Mark Smith