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The Legend of King Arthur (York)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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To create a stage version of a current TV mega-hit could be a double-edged sword and the sword takes centre stage in Mike Kenny's retelling of the classic story of The Legend of King Arthur.

© Robert Day
The BBC's own take on the classic myth, Merlin, is a flashy, effects-laden spectacular and a huge success. The massive popularity of the TV show will undoubtedly bring extra people to York Theatre Royal for Kenny's version but how can it compete against Merlin's CGI whizz-bangery?

The answer is that, on the whole, it doesn't really try. Health and Safety dictates the swordplay on display looks a little tame compared with the pace and aggression of TV fighting, and the fire-breathing dragon must be a little less incendiary than Kilgharrah. There is a nod to the youth of today by making the young Arthur of this story a keen gamer but it is unnecessary and for me (admittedly neither young nor a keen gamer) added nothing of significance to the narrative.

However, Kenny knows his medium and plays to its strengths. There is a strong emphasis on storytelling and where this production excels is in its evocation of long, medieval evenings where, due to the lack of a PS4 or an Xbox, the only entertainment available is the shared experience of re-enacting stories and legends. It is in these moments that King Arthur really captivates. Ably assisted by the ubiquitous cast and young local actors, these recounted stories are bursting with colour, music and energy.

The other trump card that Kenny, and the theatre as a whole, has is the ability to interact with its audience. The theatre foyer and garden have been transformed in to a medieval banqueting hall and courtyard, replete with jousting, dress-up and hunting birds to engage the younger members of the audience, who are also encouraged to take part in their own quest around the theatre which pays off later in the performance.

Even before the performance has started the crowd are regaled with story and song by a troupe of minstrels as they pass through the theatre, creating a suitable mood right from the off.

Whether or not King Arthur can rival the big-budget thrills of the TV show can probably only be answered by the youngsters which both productions are aimed at but Kenny, director Damian Cruden and designer Catherine Chapman have created an immersive experience which, at its best, is captivating, chaotic and a lot of fun.

The Legend of King Arthur continues at York Theatre Royal until 31 August 2013