Underbelly Festival, London – until 12 August 2018
Metta theatre’s hit Jungle Book was fashionably hip-hop before Hamilton hit (and was certainly the only time I ever heard grime and crump bouncing off the affronted walls of the Theatre Royal Windsor). But Poppy Burton-Morgan’s new one, an updating and avenging of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad fable, in circus dance and spare narration, is of quite another tone.
She has written and directed, and a fabulously lush romantic score by Matt Devereaux serves her lyrics beautifully. It is played by onstage strings, with at one point the violinist hanging briefly by her feet from an aerial hoop. The fishtailed heroine’s songs are of yearning, not only for the Prince she rescues but for learning and independence and a wider view. But there is rollicking earthbound jauntiness in the bossy court scene – “he’ll only love you if you’re perfect” and in a marvellous swirling flashing shipwreck.
The movement is graceful but often witty as well: our adolescent mermaid sometimes touchingly uncertain for a moment, vulnerable. Aerial work, acrobatic lifts, and the hoop make her struggles toward the surface feel rightly risky. Her downfall, mute and doomed, to a dark seabed is lit by juggled lightballs becoming snakes and monster eyes. The children around me were as rapt as their adults.
But it is as I said an updating, a century on from Andersen. His little mermaid has (rather than becoming sea foam) gone down to the seabed as the Sea Witch. Rupert Jenkyn Jones does terrifying giant hoop cartwheels in ragged flounces, casting the spell which gives the daughter of a century later human legs and muteness. His bitter fury in movement is unnerving. The children gasped.
But sisterhood and goodness this time prevail without resorting to Andersen’s airy soulfulness -we are in the fifties, with flowered rubber swimming caps on the nimble mermaid-acrobats. Women are toughening up in public. And, to the satisfaction of those of us who always wanted it, it is now the Prince’s turn to face a hard choice.
Feminist revisitings are not always un-irritating. There, I’ve said it. But this is skilful, charming, and lyrically beautiful in music, movement and Burton Morgan’s economical direction (75 minutes and you’re pirouetting back out to the Jubilee Gardens for a Pimms.).
Box office http://www.underbellyfestival.com to 12 Aug
0333 344 4167