Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London NW1
Opened 23 July, 2004

Sometimes a show and its surroundings will go together almost magically well.  Ian Talbot of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park has long known this, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been the traditional centrepiece of the venue’s summer season for several decades.  Now he’s found another such show, in the repertoire’s slot reserved for a musical. To watch Camelot there on a summer evening is something special.

Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 show is one of the not-quite-greats from the latter end of the Golden Age of Musicals.  It has a lot going against it. Its central tale is a dark one (although that didn’t hurt Carousel or West Side Story). Its hero, King Arthur, is cuckolded by his best friend Lancelot.  And they can only fit in a happy ending by blatantly pulling the Arthurian story up short before the final battle.

Talbot’s production, similarly, is solid without being spectacular.  Daniel Flynn as Arthur, Lauren Ward as Guenevere and Matt Rawle as a French-accented Lancelot act and sing well, but without electricity between them.  The sole extraordinary performance is in the role of King Pellinore, a buffoonish but good-hearted visiting knight. He’s played delightfully by actor and comedian Russ Abbot.

On his first entrance, Abbot seems to be going into an extended comedy routine. He even dares a joke about the weather: on taking off his helmet he notes, “Hello, it’s stopped raining.”  But he knows better than to derail the proceedings. Here, it’s allowed; but once Pellinore joins the story, he knuckles down to the drama as written.  I’m coming to believe that Abbot is way underrated as a comic character-actor.

Both the material and the production are well crafted and efficient, but not enough to make you catch your breath.  However, put them in a sylvan setting like this, as evening turns to twilight and then to night, with (fortunately) hardly a cloud in the deepening blue of the sky, and the combination can turn even a cynical old reviewer poetical.  It’s a stereotype of outdoor summer theatre, but stereotypes can be joyful.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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