Of all London’s theatres, none is quite so dependent on the vagaries of the weather as the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. No wonder that Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics to the title song of the 1960 musical Camelot, receiving its first London revival here since 1982, strike a special
“The crown has made it clear,
The climate must be perfect all year…. July and August cannot be too hot And there’s a legal limit to the snow here in Camelot. The winter is forbidden till December And exits March the 2nd on the dot By order the summer lingers till September In Camelot…”
For this musical’s return to the Court of King Arthur (just as a new film on the subject, starring Clive Owen, is about to be released), the weather obeyed those dictates to the letter, delivering a perfectly balmy summer’s evening for the press night, at least. But for once I prayed, albeit in vain, for rain.
That may seem unduly uncharitable, especially for a theatre that is so adept at putting you in a generous frame of mind, from the delightful conviviality of its pre-show restaurant and picnic area to the wrap-around intimacy of its galleried amphitheatre seating. Here, as night gradually encroaches and the stage lights start shimmering against and between the trees while the wind rustles their leaves, the theatre casts its own spell of enchantment all over again.
Add in some lovely Frederick Loewe melodies, full of his characteristic musical warmth and bounce and most sweetly performed here (with an extra cheer for Catherine Jayes’ spirited band), and what exactly am I complaining about? Just that the show itself creaks and groans, splutters and stalls into a clunky morass, by turns hopelessly sexist and deeply reactionary.
Between songs that extol “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and carefully advise “How to Handle a Woman”, here’s as corny and creepy a guidebook to the mysteries of the female sex as it’s possible to hear. And let’s not even get started on the unbelievably patronising “What Do the Simple Folk Do”, in which Arthur (a robust Daniel Flynn) and his unfaithful wife Guenevere (lovely Lauren Ward) wonder aloud what people less privileged than themselves get up to. As for “The Lusty Month of May”: I can only ask that if there’s a single more curdling and embarrassing number in the musical theatre lexicon, I’d like to be forewarned so I can make sure I’ve eaten no solids.
But perhaps I’m taking it all a little too seriously. Surely musical theatre – or at least this kind of it – exists in a parallel historical and imaginative universe where you’re invited to suspend such doubts and visit another, more romantically realised world? Except that newer fantasy creations – from Harry Potter on page and screen to His Dark Materials on page and stage – are altogether tougher, grittier and more witty. At one point a young Arthur, talking of his prophetic adviser Merlyn, says that he “doesn’t age – he youthens.” If only one could say the same of the musical.
Ian Talbot’s production pays Camelot the compliment of treating it with earnest sincerity, and even if I can’t do so myself, that’s probably the only way to play it or try to enjoy it. Still, as far as I’m concerned, it’s time to retire this show once and for all.