The curse is on me

At the Covent Garden Festival, 'Camelot' lives down to its reputation.

Noel Coward had it just about right when he said of Camelot: "It's a little like Parsifal without the jokes." He might have added - but with the songs. Take those as you find them and you're looking at a handful of the most loveable, drop-dead gorgeous numbers that Lerner and Loewe ever wrote. It's the bits in between. Did I say bits? As Pellinore says to Arthur: "You'll bore history to death." Too right. Alan Jay Lerner should have taken heed of his words. How could the man who got it so right with Shaw's Pygmalion get it so wrong with Camelot? How could so many good numbers get so lost in such a disproportionately wordy book? Was it always this tedious? Or, like Merlin, have we just got younger and wiser. The truth is, Camelot wants it every which way but the right way. When it isn't being cute, it's being sentimental; when it isn't being sentimental, it's being portentous. It's Broadway's answer to the great British panto. But it wants to be so much more.

So what kind of evening is salvageable in 1996? A long one, that's for sure. And, in Frank Dunlop's production for the Covent Garden Festival, a dowdy one. I haven't seen so many string vests since the Romford Glee Club (I believe)so memorably jousted with 1066 and All That. And the frocks. If only they'd asked. Maiden aunts up and down the land could have helped out.

It needs a great deal that wasn't forthcoming here. A theatre, for starters. I'm beginning to think that the Freemason's Hall is where musicals come to die. What can you do with this problematic space, this ungrateful acoustic, except hike up the miking and make magic with a ramp and a cat-walk. Frank Dunlop would once have done just that. But he seems to have sat this one out. It's a long time since I've seen so many bodies come and go to so little purpose. Scene after sceneseems to have wandered in off Long Acre. There is a glimpse of another kind of show in the shape of Desmond McNamara whose "double" as a dubiously Welsh ("look you") Merlin and a hearty ("what, what") Pellinore works hard to recapture even a modicum of the energy that marked out Dunlop's palmy days as founding director of the Young Vic. But he's up against it.

So are they all. In Paul Nicholas, we have a thoroughly Nineties Arthur, a charmer, a bit of a worldly wide-boy. He's a sincere orator, but the Burtonesque authority eludes him. Try as he may, he cannot check the poppy, rocky cast of his voice. Samantha Janus - a pert, often touching Guenevere, aching to be ravished - does better on that score. And Jason Donovan is not half bad (given the paucity of his material) as a degenerative Johnny Rotten-styled Mordred. Robert Meadmore's physically under-par Lancelot looks more in search of haute couture than deeds of derring-do, but at least affords us the pleasure of really musical phrasing.

In that he is a blast from the past. So too, the burnished sound of an ample band underGareth Valentine, sporting what sound like the original Robert Russell Bennett / Philip J Lang orchestrations. Now there's nostalgia. Which reminds me - where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

n Booking: 0171-312 1996

EDWARD SECKERSON

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