Arthur/Merlin Review

St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden – until 22 August 2021

Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert


Only a step away from Covent Garden piazza, you can sit among trees and roses in the gorgeous garden of St Paul’s Church, while the city roars away outside. It’s an idyllic setting for a play about the wizard Merlin and the young King Arthur, and you don’t need to wear a mask – it’s outside and well distanced. Unscripted additions like the cries of seagulls, the church clock and the rain just add to the atmosphere in this lovely spot.

There are four actors, and they’re wearing mics, so you can hear every word. And what a lot of words there are. Playwright Reuben Johnson is on a mission to get us thinking. In the first half, Merlin presents Arthur with knotty questions on the ethics of violence, social inequality, whether hunting can be justified, and some maths. Serious stuff, but Kate Donnachie is a commanding Merlin, and rattles off her rap-inspired speeches with panache. Michael Elcock is an appealingly wide-eyed innocent Arthur, and together with big bluff Lloyd Gorman and Gina Jamieson, they work valiantly to create the mysterious forest and the Lake of Avalon in our imaginations, with the help of excellent sound effects.

So far so good-ish, but the second half lost me. Admittedly it wasn’t helped by foody fragrances coming from nearby restaurants, and the sound of a raucous party. But none of those things would have mattered if the play hadn’t gone off in odd directions. First we had a long comic turn by Gorman and Jamieson, like the jokey interludes you get at pantomimes during a big scene change. But there was no scenery to change, and it added nothing to the plot.

Then Gina Jamieson turned out to be the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who had a bit of history with Merlin. Civil war broke out, and Merlin launched into a long, dark account of his origins. The Antichrist? Child-killing? What? It was both disturbing and boring, and too late in the play. By the time we got back to Arthur and the sword in the stone, it was hard to care.

This was a summery outdoor play with a vast rambling fantasy novel struggling to get out. To give everyone the benefit of the doubt, the play might have worked better with more children in the audience, for the actors to get a bit of backchat going. It’s an Iris Theatre production, led by Artistic Director Paul-Ryan Carberry. The play will go ahead in almost all weathers (ponchos available for £1).