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Review of Merlin at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

As Joe Pasquale prepares to squeak his way to Neverland in the Derngate next door, the Royal completes its 2014 Made In Northampton season with the more orthodox play Merlin. With no intentions of being seasonal in anyway, this is a more refrained non interactive take on the classic legend. It does however create a very modern version of the ancient tale, with the young characters partaking in a very modern language style and indeed even taking part in twerking during one of the music and dance interludes.

It is perhaps suited for writer Ella Hickson together with composer Jon Nicholls to try to do something different with the very familiar tale. Distancing themselves far enough away from the BBC's hugely successful Saturday night show of the same name, while maintaining a lot of the comedy of that series, they have created a hugely enjoyable two hours of entertainment. While never being able to offer the super special effects of the series on stage, dark figures provide the suggested levitation and fiery moments of actions that Merlin's magic requires. The dragon is also well realised in two forms and in his latter form got the attention of the younger members of the audience who may have been waning on occasion.

Indeed, although there were many youngsters in attendance, its safe to say that this may not be the best play to take the very young too. Not because it is frightening, but more that unlike no doubt the action will be non-stop in Peter Pan, this can be very wordy at times. You could find potentially taking any under eights could become an embarrassment and a disturbance to others as one young lad next to was whining on more than one occasion that he "wanted to go home". Having said that, the audience was filled with youngsters (some very young) during the early afternoon viewing I attended and they were mostly very well behaved.

The cast of eight led by Will Merrick (Merlin), James Clay (Arthur) and Francesca Zoutewelle (Gwen) are excellent throughout. Will Merrick portrays everything you would expect of the reluctant wizard, with the early part, a weakling attempting to become a warrior without the aid of the banned dark arts and latterly blasting into full wizard mode complete with staff and eighties dark eye-liner. Despite the need to build the character quickly through the play, it never seems rushed or unconvincing. Clay is also great in the admittedly duller role of Arthur (not just in the play but generally, as Merlin is always the star), while Zoutewelle is effervescent and playful as Gwen, constantly teasing both Merlin and Arthur with her witty comebacks.

The support roles are far from support as many of them appear in a variety of roles. Imogen Daines plays Vic in a very modern style, with super short hair and thick Scottish accent. Squeeky voiced Katherine Toy brings various humorous characters to life, be they just delivering drinks or being dressed as a talking bush. As also musical director, she also sings wonderfully (not squeaky voiced) over the best scene of the play, an incredibly well staged sword fighting scene. Fight Director Kate Waters has created a constant barrage of action, which coupled with the excellent song it is played out to, is the unquestionable scene of the play.

The rest of the cast bring the comedy, whether they be seeking love in the form of Scintillata (Charlotte Mills), a rabbit (Fergus O'Donnell) or a hugely caricatured Frenchman played by Tom Giles. The cast play their, sometimes multiple, roles superbly.

The final star of the show is designer Yannis Thavoris' set, a foreboding full stage height library complete with hundreds of books. Couple this with climbable trees that appear to push through the very floor of the stage, it is a delight and is used in a huge variety of successful ways throughout director Liam Steel's excellent production, whether depicting invaders wielding swords or dragons poking their heads through.

Merlin is a lovely and hugely enjoyable production to complete an excellent Made In Northampton season and brings a Christmas show that provides a perfect antidote to the pantomime antics of, well a pantomime.

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Performance reviewed: Saturday 29th November, 2014 (matinee) at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

Merlin runs at the Royal & Derngate (Royal) until Sunday 4th January, 2015.

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

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