Camelot at The Palladium on 6th October was a very enjoyable one night concert to celebrate the centenary of Alan Jay Lerner. Directed by Shaun Kerrison and produced by Clive Chenery on its single stage were the many part performers as well as the sixteen fine singers of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra chorus and the orchestra itself conducted by Freddie Tapner. There was no set and no costume changes, Arthur was wearing a suit and tie, Guenevere a long glittering dress. The vitality of this Camelot comes from the talent of the musicians and performers amassed on the Palladium’s stage, and the wonderful music, a number of songs being classics.
Everyone thinks they know the story of King Arthur and Guenevere but the book of Camelot, the famous Broadway show, departs in important ways from contemporary versions of the legend.
The first act was terrific. Olivier Award-winner, David Thraxton plays Arthur at first as a self-effacing young man unsure of his qualifications for what he sees as an accidental kingship. Guenevere (nicknamed Jenny) is played appealingly by Savannah Stevenson as an intelligent and sweet-natured young woman. Someone to like. Her voice is lovely and brims with energy. Within the confines of the stage, she managed to communicate a consistent sense of a decided character.
During the first half of the show, Arthur is seen to grow into a man of vision, goodness and aspiration, finding happiness with Guenevere. But over time their romance cools and it is at that point that David Thraxton produced his first star performance of the night, singing How to Love a Woman. And it’s then that the pompously good and smug Lancelot (Lance) appears to smite Guenevere with his magical powers which include healing a wounded companion knight by concentrating hard. If these powers can be tied with the Arthurian magic of Merlyn in a full set production this may not be a problem but on stage here it seemed rather ludicrous. It was the first time in the show disbelief had to be actively suspended. Though the scene straight afterwards where Guenevere acknowledges the power Lancelot has over her after so much moral resistance on her part was beautifully staged and very moving.
Apart from the romance of this particular scene Arthur however, is so much more appealing a character than Lancelot in the twenty-first century. Arthur is a thinking, sensitive modern man able to show vulnerability and doubt, to explore ambiguity. Lancelot was most sonorously performed in this show by the world-renowned and gallant opera star, Charles Rice. His performance of If Ever I Would Leave You was gorgeous indeed. Pure mellifluous joy. But as the years pass in the stage narrative the chemistry of what might have been between Guenevere and Arthur on stage becomes stronger than the supposedly present romance of suppressed passion between Lancelot and Guenevere.
There was ample wit to amuse. Clive Carter plays Merlyn and also Arthur’s ingratiating courtier and fixer, Pellimore with verve and a great sense of fun. ‘Stop thinking thoughts and think something’, he tells Arthur.
Arthur’s Camelot has become a place of peace and law we are told. Law courts and a judiciary deal with disputes and there’s time and peace enough throughout the kingdom for the pleasures of Maying and flower gathering. It’s in this nirvana of justice and peace and contentment however that Lancelot learns he is not perfect after all, he has fallen in love and desires the wife of his greatest friend and king.
The first act ends with a jealous King singing about the choices he has, as to how to react to the passion he knows the two people he loves best in the world are suppressing for each other. The song is called Proposition and David Thaxton sings it with all the power and feeling of a great performer. In the course of this song he experiments with fury and cruelty but by its conclusion he has chosen gentleness, not to be confused with weakness. David Thaxton viscerally brings the sense there are two paths opening in front of him. This song resonates with the choices faced by our political leaders today. Despite the time since its composition it manages to relate to the current political dilemmas of our time.
Camelot in its first ever performance in Toronto ran at four hours and twenty minutes which means the original book was framed very differently to this show which runs at just about two hours with an interval. In the second half of this, the production lost its frame, so tight in the first half. The problem here is probably with the book as written.
Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son from before Guenevere, turns up as a surprise to the childless King and Queen and the show’s audience too, an instrument of division. He’s a pragmatic young man from beyond tranquil Camelot and is untroubled by thought other than for self-advantage. Sam Swann plays him with believable menace.
Mordred persuades Arthur to set a testing trap for Guenevere and Lancelot by going away for a single night. Lancelot goes to her then but though she turns him away with resolve at first she cannot bear to parted from him and it is then they are caught.
This is where the narrative in the show written in a different time becomes bothersome. King Arthur stands aside while Guenevere who he’s supposed to love to be sentenced by his courts to burn at the stake, for adultery. These days this is too barbaric a punishment to be accepted for that. The cruelty of this also conflicts with the Camelot we have come to know. As the king, it seems Arthur is required to give the order for the torch to set fire to his love. He can’t. Lancelot and Guenevere are allowed by Arthur to escape together to France, where they meet Arthur again. It turns out the lovers are not together there, she’s in a nunnery. Lancelot is alone and unhappy, Arthur too. Guinevere is unhappy and alone but we’re told all she is looking for from Arthur is forgiveness. None of this is satisfactory.
Maybe with costumes and a set creating a sense of a story from the past this could, possibly, be adequately told to a modern-day audience but it’s problematic in these times where adultery is not a crime. The original 1960 production ran on Broadway for 873 performances, winning four Tony awards, however, this was nearly sixty years ago when adultery and divorce were much. much more contentious.
What remains as vibrant as ever in this are the songs. The original cast album was America’s top-selling LP for sixty weeks in 1960. What Do the Simple Folk Do? is sung, danced and acted within the confines of a crowded stage crowded as a clever and lovely duet of tangible regret between Arthur and Guenevere.
Arthur takes comfort in his solitary devastation from the peaceful future he has created. That the children of his kingdom may grow in contentment to be old men. There’s a lovely cameo here by young Raphael Higgins-Humes as Tom of Warwick.
King Arthur finishes the show with a final reprise of Camelot, having learnt aspiration is insufficient. The superb David Thaxton pulled out the stops of his vocal ability again, to communicate emotion again, bringing enormous regret and pain to this moment he carried the show to a great ending.
The audience gave the show an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Review by Marian Kennedy
This much-loved musical brings the legend of King Arthur to vivid life with an extraordinary score and book based on T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King. When Guenevere falls for Lancelot, one of the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur’s loyalties and beliefs are tested, and the fate of his beloved Camelot hangs in the balance.
Arthur: David Thaxton
Guenevere: Savannah Stevenson
Lancelot: Charles Rice
Mordred: Sam Swann
Pellinore/Merlyn: Clive Carter
Sir Dinadan: Matthew McKenna
Sir Lionel: Emmanuel Kojo
Sir Sagramore: Oliver Savile
Nimue: Celinde Schoenmaker
Tom: Raphael Higgins-Hume
Conductor: Freddie Tapner
Director: Shaun Kerrison
Sound Designer: Simon Sayer for Autograph
Lighting Designer: Mike Robertson
Orchestra Leader: Debs White
Executive Producer: Clive Chenery
Saturday 6th October
London Musical Theatre Orchestra: Camelot
London Palladium Theatre
8 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TF