I’m a sucker for big, family-orientated Christmas shows. I look forward to the twisting but predictable plotlines in which characters overcome adversity and peril, returning their world to harmony. I love the inevitable happy-ever-after. I love the magic, the twinkling lights, and the fuzzy feeling they instill. I love the comedy and songs. I love all of this. But it does need to be done well.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed by Bristol Old Vic’s big Christmas production, The Little Mermaid. Last year’s Peter Pan was boisterous, inventive and unconventional, ticking all of my Christmas boxes while also giving me lots to think about. There’s lots to like too about this Little Mermaid, but not all of the elements work.
The protagonists are pretty wet (no pun intended), the baddie is a Bad Panto caricature, and while there are lots and lots and lots of songs, they aren’t all that memorable, or for that matter, in tune. There has been a certain amount of hype around the ‘magic’ used to make the mermaids appear to be swimming. But the reality of this is rather laboured. You want your little mermaid to be an elegant, swift, graceful creature – but this one swims awkwardly, floundering and uncomfortable.
Shlomo’s beatbox soundtrack was somewhat overhyped, too. I was looking forward to plenty of interesting under-water sounds, but there wasn’t really all that much beatbox on offer, and what there was usually underscored yet another forgetful song. Katie Moore – as the title character – has a beautiful voice and her theme song is the one triumph of the soundtrack – soaring, haunting and touching – there are few more strong voices among the rest of the cast, but surprisingly for a show where music is so central, the vocal skill on display is variable.
Jon Bausor’s set design is, however, fabulous, including an undulating ‘roof’ like stained glass as the top of the ocean, which is lowered when the Mermaid goes ‘up there’, cleverly transforming into waves and topped by a boat. But this lowering process is as clunky as the Mermaid’s swimming, using an old rope-and-pulley system which seems slow and a bit jerky. Using 18th century theatre techniques is a nice idea, but in a production that’s gone out of its way to have a ‘funky, contemporary slant’ (in director Simon Godwin’s words), it doesn’t gel. On the other hand, Bausor’s nu-rave tropical underwater costumes are mesmerising.
Tristan Sturrock, Bristol Old Vic associate artist, is good as ever, as the Mermaid’s fishy father and a pompous court MC, though occasionally I fancied I caught him looking a little bored… Martin Bassindale is also consistently worth watching, as a camp mermaid and a hefty armoured crab. (He’s one of the winners of Bristol Old Vic’s Patron’s Prize, offering two Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates a six month contract – he was very watchable in their Great Expectations, too.)
The story is a simple one, adapted by Joel Horwood and based largely on Hans Christian Anderson. When the teenage Little Mermaid encounters her first ever man (apart from her own father), she is smitten. The not so-handsome prince, saved from drowning by the mermaid’s sea-calming song – though too far gone to open his eyes and actually see her – is also smitten.
This is complicated by the fact that the Mermaid is not allowed to talk to humans (called who-mons in this production for comic effect). And yet the prince, who is obliged by law to marry someone within one year, sets his heart on the singer he has never seen. The big bad panto Sea Queen, played lavishly by Beverly Rudd, wants to rule everything, and will do anything to get there, including swindling the Mermaid out of her own tongue in order to bag the prince. The story doesn’t get going until the second half, perhaps because of all the tail-flapping – and the singing. It all ends with a big group song (of course) and with the audience clapping along as the prince marries the mermaid – not long after having married the Sea Queen.
I really, really wanted to like this production more, but found it’s failure to pull all these creative elements together disappointing. Given the platform, the profile, the resources and the influence the Bristol Old Vic has – and in the year of Tom Morris’s infinitely more memorable and innovative A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this show is was a real let-down.