Waterman’s Arts Centre, London – until 28 May 2017
A boy and his gran live in a lighthouse, high on a cliff. The town below them is a pile of houses where fisherfolk live who love tea and are wary of anyone from outside the town. Mythical creatures live in the depths of the sea that swirls below the cliff and supports the fishing boats, protected by the long-lost silver shell. Some of the creatures are friendly and some less so, but the fisherfolk think all of them are threats. The boy and his gran eventually need to intervene to help the fisherfolk understand that just because someone is from somewhere else, that doesn’t make them a bad person.
Alex Kanevsky’s The Boy and the Mermaid is a complex tale for children using puppetry, object manipulation, music and physical theatre to build a visually striking landscape. The nautical, DIY aesthetic is hugely appealing, and consistent across the set, costume, and puppets. Each puppet character is charmingly replicated in two different sizes, as is the town. The mermaid is particularly beautiful, though the fisherfolk portrayed with wellies is an utter delight. Fishing nets, lanterns and wooden creates are a precarious, moveable landscape that constantly surprises with its versatility. It’s simple yet detailed; Amanda Mascarenhas’ set is a great balance of thought, appearance and functionality.
A trio of performers with splendid beards are timeless storytellers and musicians who dip in and out of the story’s characters. The transitions are smooth, and the puppets ensure clarity. All three are strong singers and display excellent physical precision and energy.
The narrative doesn’t need to be as complex as it is, especially for young audiences. Some elements are neglected, like the providence of the silver shell and the history of attacks on the town by a kraken. A metaphor for refugees is explained in the programme and carries through well, though I’m not sure how much the target audience is aware of the crisis and public animosity towards foreigners.
It’s a beautiful show and just the right length for younger primary school children, with catchy sea shanties and engaging performances. The plot needs some simplification, or it could be further developed to add detail and a richer backstory – but this pushes little attention spans. It’s a difficult balance to strike in children’s theatre, and one this show hasn’t quite achieved.