Underbelly Festival, London – until 12 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Rebecca JS Nice
Just before the skies break and the rains come, lethargic families are lulled and tempered by six mermaids swimming through the heavy air. I applaud the cast which carries a full-length narrative piece with live song and music to the pinnacle of the tent in the heatwave.
The Little Mermaid is a serious show with a narrative that is carried in song and mimicked in movement. The live music played by the singers and acrobats, who hold a note whilst holding the violin, cello and double bass in all sorts of compromising positions, forms the spine of the show and holds attention throughout. In singing and playing, the cast creates a heavy atmosphere that feels dark and creepy with jolly tunes dancing round the tent in contrast.
Poppy Burton-Morgan adapts and directs Hans Christian Andersen’s classic with original live music composed by Matt Devereaux. It is described as a feminist retelling, but the two female protagonists are victims, lacking in agency and criticality, hanging their lives on the power of men. Whilst the show is a good, solid offering, it is let down by its impossible claims to feminism but it certainly appeals to children.
The greatest moments are where circus acts form the narrative rather than describing it. The mermaid climbs upon not one but two figures, reaching the surface of the water by climbing a three-person ladder. The sailing ship manned by a crew of yellow cagoules allows the prince to climb its mast like a Chinese pole.
Churning, undulating, hanging and swinging on the aerial ring, the Prince’s flexed feet and heavy dynamics allow his circus vocabulary to let him descend to the depths of a dangerous ocean. The same hoop becomes a lifebuoy that the mermaid clambers through and around to save him from the turbulent waves.
A jellyfish Sea Witch creates a cauldron or a sci-fi planetary ring that performs spells on those trapped in its centre. A juggling routine with glowing white balls in the dark is a fleeting moment of beauty and a sea horse, trumpet puppet are beautiful touches that should be integrated further into the work.
Loren Elstein’s costumes are colourful and quirky. The corals and greens run from frumpy swimming costumes and bathing hats to hooped skirts for the ball, however their pantomime-like style has more personality than the sensible cast on this hot day. The Prince’s wardrobe mistress enters to dress the mermaid for the ball sporting a dress made of rubber gloves and steals the show with a terrific song and dance with a hint of sass. RAn eager audience is primed for more characters like this.
At times the embodiment of the mermaids is awkward and uncomfortable. Individual style is replaced with attempts to subvert gender narratives that don’t quite come off. There is an uncomfortable discord between song, script and movement that perhaps reflects the making process of narrative circus. Acts and motifs are not developed to their funniest, riskiest or most effective moments to lead the narrative, instead they often feel like an add on used to illustrate rather, than an integral part of the work.
This results in a tame show, neither hilarious or moving but gently soothing – childlike in form and function. This show has all the ingredients to wow kids and grownups with some character development, clowning or a hint of the individuals’ sense of humour. Off-script jokes and commentary on the narrative choices would allow for a feminist retelling to thread through the work which, at present, is lacking.