The Egg, Bath – until 14 January 2018
The early to mid 90’s saw Disney turn fairy tales iconic. For those of us born in the years preceding this juggernaut, our first exposure to these tales was in the animated movies that saw French singing candlesticks, Robin Williams wisecracking granter of wishes and a terrifying but alluring (in human form at least) sea witch.
Consequently, it’s difficult for those of my generation to see these tales in any way but in their animated form. Fairy tales as fixed entities. Yet these tales weren’t plucked by the studio fully formed, the origins were passed through many generations being added and chipped away at. While the framework stayed the same, the narrative and characters altered depending on the teller telling it. Like a tall tale told well, details were shifted to gain the best results.
Something similar is going on in the Egg Theatre and Pine and Needles Christmas telling of The Little Mermaid. Writer Bea Roberts has subtly altered the tale within the overall framework, and as a result, you watch it not knowing exactly where it is going to end up. A happy ending is likely guaranteed – it is Christmas, after all, even if Hans Christian Andersen may have had other ideas – but by altering the love story to girl meets girl and not giving us a villain in the obvious sense, it is never obvious where the tale will take us next.
Roberts, whose Infinity Pool turned Bovary on its head, does something similar here. She takes a tale that is highly familiar and ploughs her own path, sticking to its main beats and asking us, its audience, to view it afresh. Its Fabreeze fresh and impressively original which challenges the preconceptions taken into the auditorium. Changing our view of classic literature seems to part of Robert’s mantra.
Yet it takes awhile to work its magic. On this, the second preview- where the creative team were still huddled together looking at trimming the excess fat- it doesn’t fully come together until the final moments of the first act. This Mermaid takes a long time to rise to the surface. Anna Wheatley’s Princess Morgan, the youngest of her sisters and fourth in line to the throne, may be attracted to the allure of the shore but so are we. Act One takes its time setting up its characters, spunky Morgan, Jordan Whyte’s weary Queen, Megan Treadway’s chanteuse black sheep Celeste, but it doesn’t have enough light, enough jokes, enough charm. It leaves its target audience restless. Family audiences are best in telling its creators if they’re getting it right, there is no polite hiding of emotion when what is being presented is not connecting. The shuffling feet and demanding of sweets tell you what you need to know.
And then, with a sudden shift, the magic happens. Morgan is sent up to the surface, given six days to live life as a human. Her ascent is choreographed in breathtaking style in Emma Earle’s and Cameron Carver’s production, bodies and sheets and lights coming together to enchant. She breaks through the waves and muted blues make way for dazzling light. Its theatrical alchemy just at the point it needed it most. The second half continues much more in this vein if never quite hitting the same highs, all the hard work of building the characters up in the first half mean we generally care about the characters in front of us in the second. Expectations are turned on their head. Evil is not where we expect it to be. The posh boy prince is discarded for the more humble cabin girl with dreams of being a captain. This mermaid isn’t voiceless, just not able to speak the same language as the people around her. Suddenly you can hear a pin drop, not one child is asking for a wine gum anymore.
Unfortunately, performances are occasionally uneven which means the script doesn’t always fly as well as it might. There is telling work from Wheatley who gives this Little Mermaid much more of a voice than the anaemic presence at the heart of Disney. This is a heroine to root for. Georgia Frost as the love interest and in a host of other clearly delineated cameo’s expands on all the promise she showed as a student at BOVTS while Timothy O’Hara is a hoot in every role he plays.
It will gain in power as the run goes and the first half, in particular, is tightened. Yet it is not quite yet a Christmas classic. The jokes appear more aimed at parent then child and only achieve knowing nods rather than belly laughs, while the 80’s setting, Rick Astley and George Michael et al. is as distant as the middle ages for most of its young audience. These humans are almost as mystical as the creatures beneath the sea.
It’s a bold take and one that ultimately and with patience pays off.I came out buzzing with the ideas but less in sheer exhilaration the way the best Christmas shows offer. Perhaps that is to come. All new tales need time to bed in.
The Little Mermaid plays at The Egg, Bath on the 14 January 2018.