REVIEW: Arthur/Merlin (Iris Theatre)

This week saw the opening of Iris Theatre’s family show Arthur/Merlin, a contemporary telling of the Arthurian legend performed in the gorgeous garden of St Paul’s Church (affectionately known as The Actors’ Church). Mummy and Crotchet headed along to a drizzly Covent Garden for their press performance on Thursday night.

Arthur/Merlin is the legend of King Arthur but not as you know it (although admittedly Mummy’s knowledge of the story derives mostly from Monty Python and a very hazy recollection of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone). Reuben Johnson’s re-imagining sees our reluctant hero, nicknamed “Spud” (Michael Elcock), led by legendary wizard Merlin (Kate Donnachie) on a mysterious quest through a forest to fulfil an as yet unknown destiny . Desperate to escape his nasty older brother, Kaye (Lloyd Gorman), Spud doesn’t take much persuading to follow Merlin into the forest, even though she doesn’t look much like the wand-wielding, hat-wearing, bearded old bloke he is expecting. Our Merlin is a wily wordsmith with a talent for spitting rhymes and (in contrast to Spud) a keen interest in maths. (Numbers are reliable, unlike all the difficult decisions that life throws at you). Although unable to divulge the full details of Spud’s quest, she promises guidance (with the caveat that she has a tendency to wander off). To seal the deal, she also comes bearing snacks.

Kate Donnachie (Merlin) and Michael Elcock (Arthur). Credit: Steve Gregson

It soon becomes apparent (to the audience at least) that Spud’s journey will lead him from the forest to the city, where he is destined to become King and reunite a fragmented country. Along the way, he is forced to make difficult decisions which test his moral compass. Conveniently, these are the moments where Merlin makes good on that warning that she sometimes likes to wander, leaving Spud to grapple with his conscience, and some rather unsavoury characters, alone. That is, at least, until he gains the support of sorceress, Morgan Le Fay (Gina Jamieson), who is on her own quest to get as far away as possible from the city into which Spud seeks entry. But when Le Fay comes face to face with Merlin, accusations start to fly, leaving Merlin unsure of herself and Spud continuing his quest alone. As you might imagine, it culminates in a sword being pulled from a stone (or technically a well positioned tree stump in the centre of the stage). There follows a power struggle between Spud and Kane, who has been one step behind his brother throughout the journey, and fancies himself as the rightful King. Can Spud harness the power of Excalibur to prove that he is the true heir to the throne? And will he succeed in healing the rifts in the country by wielding words instead of waging war?

Michael Elcock (Arthur) and Lloyd Gorman (Kaye). Credit: Steve Gregson

It’s an interesting take on the tale, which fuses together the classic and contemporary and includes plenty of comedy to offset some of the darker moments. Elcock and Donnachie form a natural, comedic partnership as Merlin and Spud attempt to navigate their newly forged relationship at the same time as finding their way around the physical forest. Jamieson and Gorman work tirelessly to play a range of supporting roles, including pairing up to create a particularly entertaining comedy duo as the twins who guard the bridge between the forest and the city. Paul-Ryan Carberry’s direction ensures that the audience are immersed in the action, with plenty of movement around the space, and some entertaining audience interaction. Crotchet (usually reluctant to volunteer for audience participation) really enjoyed becoming involved in proceedings as Gorman attempted to sell her a knock-off Excalibur. She also found it fun being so close to the actors who regularly used the aisle next to her seat, even if she found Spud’s initial dramatic entrance a bit scary! The wet ground also added to the danger factor as the actors rushed past – And full credit to Elcock for commitment given the amount of time he spent lying in the mud!

Although recommended for ages 6+ we would suggest that this show is probably more appropriate for ages 8 and above (and would best suit those in KS2 and KS3). Younger children may find it a little slow and possibly scary in places. They may also struggle to follow some of the sub-plots. Crotchet (9 and a half) was enthralled throughout and was able to explain some of the morals of the story afterwards. (There are quite a lot of moral messages that you could pull out from this play, including themes of pacifism, looking for the good in everything and an overarching idea that there are not always easy or right answers.) She also really liked all the spoken word. Her only real complaint was that the stage lights were very bright when it got dark!

If you haven’t already made it down to Iris Theatre Summer Festival this year, this fun family show marks your last chance to visit. It’s a really lovely venue which comes alive as the light fades so we would recommend attending an evening performance if you can. Even the rain can’t put a dampener on the magic – Just make sure you bring a waterproof!

Arthur/Merlin plays at Iris Theatre Summer Festival from 4 to 22 August 2021. We received complimentary tickets to the press performance at 7.30pm on Thursday 5 August.