Merlot & Royal, an original musical by Imogen Mechie, opened at the Tingewick Hall with great potential, but it failed to live up to a promising start. Set in the 1950s, Merlot & Royal concerns the failing eponymous bank, rocked by the numerous scandals of its recently promoted director, brought in at the death of his father. Hounded by the press, it is decided by the bank’s managerial team that Robert Merlot (Sammy Breen) should find a wife. This is because, of course, ‘the public always loves a wedding’. A suitable candidate is found: the young Miss Brooke, an upper class woman of society, with accomplishments but who fail to snare the heart of Merlot, who instead finds himself attracted to the beautiful but working class Eliza. Intrigues ensue along with a bank heist, a murder-suicide, and several musical numbers.
Herein lies the problem with this production: the musical numbers, often catchy and evocative of the time period, showcasing generally good singing from the cast, are stitched together by a hyperactive plot (which has so much to it that it ends up becoming farcical), underwritten characters, and clunky dialogue. The most compelling character is the fatherly bank manager, Nathaniel, played by Benedict Turvill, a jovial, affable chap, caring for the wayward Merlot despite his consistently poor decision-making. Yet Nathaniel is a secondary character, in contrast the two main characters, Eliza and Merlot, are poorly drawn. Merlot is anodyne and bland – a person who would positively enjoy the culinary adventure of eating mild cheddar and decry the lemon and herb spice at Nando’s as too hot. Towards the end of the musical, Merlot considers a change of career, which the bank would probably welcome, for around 5 minutes, engaging in great introspection by declaring ‘I’ve decided to develop myself and maybe I’ll try architecture or something like that, I don’t know’. This is a shame, as Breen was a talented actor and with greater characterisation, would have been capable of doing much more with this part. Similarly, Amelia Gabriel is wasted as Eliza, who, seemingly like every girl from the wrong side of the tracks, has been given a tragic backstory and a fraught parent-child relationship. Eliza, and indeed Miss Brooke, exist around Merlot and Merlot’s issues; their function is to propel his story, not their own. Miss Brooke is the stereotypical upper-class bluestocking who wants a good husband; at one point she breaks into a song ‘Why is reality rarely romantic?’ about the way men do not fulfil her wishes for romance. As soon as her plot function is served, she is dismissed as quickly as she was introduced. The musical does not pass the Bechdel test – and while I admit there are flaws in this measurement of female characterisation, it still raises an interesting point – with Eliza never having a full conversation with another woman, and Miss Brooke and her female family members only congregating to talk about Merlot. This presentation of women is not redeemed by the heavy-handed slogan-like dialogue concerning female roles: Nathaniel makes the remarkable observation that ‘women are important’, and Eliza telling her father ‘you know how hard I work and how difficult it is for women’. These statements are true, but do not absolve the thin characterisation of women in the musical itself.
The cast are let down by the writing: they do a lot with what they were given, bringing emotion and humour to some parts.
Moreover, some of the dialogue that strings the musical numbers together is anachronistic and banal. The creator of the show wrote it when she was 15, undoubtedly a remarkable achievement, but she has not since changed much and this comes through. Mark Thompson, the sly, sleazy board member from the bank, justifies the declining fortune of his investment portfolio by saying ‘my numbers might be down but that’s because of the economy’. Merlot tries to comfort a distressed and unhappy Eliza, entreating her: ‘there, there, don’t you cry, I’ll dry those tears away’, Merlot being as useful as a box of tissues.
This may seem overly harsh as a criticism of the production; it is only so because the premise had such possibility. The cast are let down by the writing: they do a lot with what they were given, bringing emotion and humour to some parts. The scene where Merlot and Miss Brooke attempt small talk on a park bench is excruciating and amusing, with Merlot displaying his characteristic slowness by saying to Miss Brooke ‘so you have interests, I suppose’.
Equally, the theme of a persecuting press explored in the first half but slightly abandoned in the second, could have been a neat commentary on our own relationship with the media. The chorus of journalists and newspaper-readers crow the latest headlines about Merlot’s scandals in a relay of exclamation, effectively conveying the deluge of press which so negatively affects the bank. Moreover, the set for Merlot & Royal Bank is a large backdrop covered in newspapers, with black-line windows and a majestic entrance, which emphasises the importance of public relations to the characters. Indeed, the press provides an opportunity for humour at the expense of gossip rags: Merlot and Miss Brooke, having been hounded on their first date, are asked ‘do you think this could be love?’ to which Merlot replies ‘Oh yes, it might be!’ having just been entirely bored by Miss Brooke’s conversation.
The songs, however, are mostly excellent, with the live orchestra creating a good sound in the large Tingewick Hall building. Standouts include ‘Merlot & Royal’, the opening number, which stayed with me as I left the production; ‘I Stand Here in the Moonlight’, performed well by Gabriel and Breen; and ‘The Ball’ which showcases the ensemble, who performed well together and were engagingly choreographed.
Merlot & Royal had such promise, and at points it seemed like it would deliver; however, the wonderful cast and catchy tunes were ultimately let down by the writing which lacked a certain maturity.