Drew McOnie’s first full-length ballet, Merlin, is a likable stab at a fantasy drama for a family audience, based on the story of the legendary wizard, with warring kingdoms, spear-fighting, stage magic, a smoke-breathing dragon and a mighty, LED-studded Excalibur.
The drivers of the plot are quests for power and romantic love – the big stuff – but Merlin’s story is more about family. Born of an encounter between a couple of frisky gods and adopted by a blacksmith single mum, he has a perfect fantasy of who his parents might be, but a more realistic relationship with his mum: of day-to-day exasperations and everyone doing their best but not quite making the other person happy (she wants him to deny his magic and join the army like everyone else) That journey is the real heart of the show.
The stage looks great (designed by Colin Richmond) the kingdom drenched in gold, the costumes both medieval and futuristic, while Grant Olding’s music clarifies the drama line by line. Best known for his work in musical theatre (Carousel, Jesus Christ Superstar), McOnie brings contemporary dance sensibility with added pointe shoes, playing out in bold strokes, swipes and diagonals, like writing Japanese kanji characters in the space. It could do with a little more vocabulary in places, though.
The dancers are always moving, everything is action and plot (even if some details get lost). You don’t get much in the way of danced monologues, it’s very much an ensemble piece. But the soloists are good: Merlin (Kevin Poeung) is a great dancer, with lovely elevation; even when his character isn’t very sure of himself, the dancing is clear and steadfast. Antoinette Brooks-Daw is commanding as a Daenerys Targaryen type (with the fighting skills of Arya Stark) who gets hooked on power, sucking the magic out of Merlin, wreaking havoc because she can’t get the boyfriend she wants.
McOnie has missed a trick in not truly showing off what ballet dancers can do, in terms of the subtleties of technique, the way dance can really speak, or even soaring bravura steps. But it’s not bad for a first attempt.
At Nottingham Theatre Royal until 2 October. Then touring.