On Friday I concluded, definitively, that the perfect way to spend an English summer evening is in the park, with open air theatre, a basket full of food, and a blanket wrapped around you. I spent another wonderful evening at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, this time to see Merlin and the Woods of Time. The atmosphere inside the walls is beautiful; glasses of wine, picnic baskets, deck chairs, people snuggled in blankets, all as the sun is slowly sinking behind the trees, and the air is soft and chill.
The production opens in a burst of energy and laughter, with a full-scale theatrical number, musical ensemble, with the whole cast on stage (or should I say ‘On the bark chippings’?). The laughter of the audience, in particular the children, pierced the air. When the kazoos came out, and the cast began parading around, blowing them, it was hilarious, and you could hear children laughing unreservedly. Every so often, throughout the performance, the quiet of the auditorium would ring with the mischievous chuckle of a child, clearly showing that the children not only followed the plot rapturously, but that they got the jokes as well.
Bright, rich costumes, and vividly coloured puppets created an exciting and vibrant feast for the eyes. A clever device was used, in the form of two sports commentators (with stereotypical voices), who were extremely funny, and created a lot of energy, and, together with the rest of the cast, kept the performance highly dynamic. The humour is hard to pigeon-hole, as it was mainly very family friendly, often decidedly so, but occasionally a line or gesture was thrown in that was unsuitable for the children in the audience, but hopefully went over their heads. It wasn’t entirely child-suitable, but as a whole experience, it’s very family orientated.
The characters are larger than life, and make it a kind of pantomime, but with the alfresco freshness of Summer. Mordred, for example, played wonderfully by Robert Mountford, enters with energy, boldness, and loudness. Again, very cleverly funny.
Every so often a line, or gesture, absolutely lit me up with joy. For example, Lancelot being described as; ‘A bilingual, metro-sexual fairy’, or the moment when a siren went past outside at the precise moment of David Hartley’s line; ‘It makes all sounds melodious’, with a small inclination of his head, which couldn’t have been better timed if it had been planned.
Robert Mountford had a tendency, being tall and dressed dramatically all in black, to steal each scene he was in, no less than his shining moment, for me, when he came in as though he’d been decapitated, with the costume making it look as though he were holding his head under his arm, and he began to dance, which was so delightfully funny. The giggles of children and adults alike could be heard above the music.
Lancelot, played perfectly by Paul-Ryan Carberry, was a pompous, dense fop, but played with intelligent humour.
When I saw As You Like It last week, I fell in love with Rosie Jones and her Maxine Peake spunk. This week, as Elaine in Merlin, she didn’t disappoint. One of my very favourite moments of the night was when someone asked; ‘Would you like some wine?’, and Elaine replied; ‘I would not! I am having a pie’. It was one of those beautiful Waynetta Slob moments, with perfect comedic timing. The later scenes whirl up into a dizzying chaos, as potions are brewed and drunk, time is warped, and the stage is flooded with the entire cast. Throughout one of the most chaotic scenes, Rosie Jones (or should I say ‘Elaine’?) is walking around the edge of the audience, hunched over, eating a pie that she has just fallen in love with, thanks to one of the potions, giving disgusted and aggressive glares at the audience members.
Natalie Grady, who plays Morgana, made two appearances as a seemingly unassuming cleaning lady, dressed in overalls and headscarf, singing the Vera Lynn song; We’ll Meet Again, which could be perfectly unremarkable moments in the production, but for Grady’s growling delivery, and northern tea-lady charm, which was hilarious.
Alan McMahon’s Merlin, a tall, spindly figure, was camp, dapper, and Leslie-Neilson-posh. His delivery and performance were completely golden in terms of comedy, so beautifully effeminate, and twinkly-eyed, and nimble-limbed. In terms of the funny lines, his delivery was spot-on.
Nicholas Asbury’s commentator injected high-energy comedy, usually installed just above the audience’s heads in the special commentator’s box, he was wickedly funny, and the scenes with Poor Dee The River Girl were hilarious, especially the fight with the White Knight. Any time a man is wearing a platinum wig, and fighting another man twice his size, only good things will happen.
The finale is grand, with another large-scale musical number, which leaves you on a note of feel-good warmth and energy. I got a real feeling that the cast love what they’re doing, and they want their audience to enjoy it. As a production, Merlin feels very warm-hearted, with wit and pomp, and theatricality, but all in the bliss of a park on a summer night.
Another perfect evening in the park, it really is the only way to spend a summer evening in England. Go, while you still can!