THEATRE REVIEW: Something for everyone with Merlin

Will Merrick and Katherine Toy in Merlin at the Royal & Derngate
Will Merrick and Katherine Toy in Merlin at the Royal & Derngate

The Royal & Derngate’s winter production of Merlin is magical in every sense of the word – and the perfect introduction for younger theatre-goers to drama.

My initial concern was that it would be too ‘old’ for my two daughters, who are aged five and seven and whose only experiences of the theatre so far have been of pantomime.

But – and I mean this in the most complimentary way - Merlin adopts many of the stylings of panto to make it accessible for viewers of all ages.

The story revolves around three childhood friends; Merlin (Will Merrick), Prince Arthur (James Clay) and Princess Gwen (Francesca Zoutewelle) but draws in several other characters, all portrayed to varying degrees of seriousness and comic effect.

What catches the eye straight away are the special effects and the excellent set, which is adapted to be a boat, a forest, a banquet hall, a jousting arena and – perhaps most impressively of all – a floor-to-ceiling library packed with books.

What I liked about the stage design was that it relied on their children to use their imagination and really involve themselves in what was happening on the stage.

The effects are very well done, with books flying off shelves and fire floating around as Merlin gets to grips with his magic.

The pinnacle of the special effects was when Princess Viv (Imogen Daines) emerged from the floor to present Excalibur to Arthur. It genuinely flummoxed both of the children.

There was also a dragon emerging from the bookcase, which was enough to ensure my youngest gripped my arm tightly but was as scary as it got.

In fact, there was just enough scariness and then lighter scenes to emotionally involve the children.

All of the parts are well played, with Arthur doing a worthy turn and Merlin adding more than a healthy dash of awkward Harry Potter to his character.

The girls’ favourites were (of course) the female lead, Gwen, who was feisty and perhaps being the true hero of the story, and the hilarious Princess Scintillata (Charlotte Mills), who went from needy lady-in-waiting to warrior in the play’s final act and was very enjoyable at both.

Adults will love Tom Giles’ turn as Garotte, the cowardly and hard-drinking French prince, who seems to have most of the best lines and delivers them hilariously.

Merlin works very well as a humourous and interesting production across all age groups and my five-year-old was literally on the edge of her seat throughout.

We didn’t even need to open a second bag of sweets and I highly recommend it as both an entertaining winter warmer for adults and a first step for junior viewers on the road of theatre drama.