Nottingham Playhouse are really doing themselves proud these days and their latest collaboration with innovative theatre company Shared Experience is no exception. Polly Teale has adapted and directed the story of the Little Mermaid for the 21th Century. Thankfully, we see no Disney schmaltz in this stage production. Instead we have a gripping and emotionally taut tale of two worlds: the unselfconscious life of the mermaids in the depths of the oceans and the human life that exists on the land and sometimes encounters peril on the seas.
All is atmospherically
set (designer Tom Piper) on a raised area surrounded by the seemingly
cavernous and rusting walls of a sunken wreck. The performers use
every inch of the stage to mesmeric effect and the rapt audience are
so quiet during the story that you could hear a pin drop into the
theatrically poetic ocean.
Shared Experience are
well known for tackling text head on and devising new interpretations
of story-telling and pioneering distinctive performance styles that
celebrate a union of physical and text based drama. Mermaid is
certainly a very physical piece and the actors playing the mermaids;
Miranda Mac Letten, Ritu Arya, Amaka Okafor as mermaids one to three
along with Sarah Twomey as Little Mermaid are exceptional in their
physical dexterity. The three numbered mermaids morph into a variety
of characters during the show. One second we see them being a sad
selection of vacuous teenage girls hell bent on making a misery of a
school friend's life and next as royal courtiers or a frightening
gaggle of sea witches. Their costume changes are staggeringly quick.
As the Little Mermaid
newcomer Sarah Twomey shines in her depiction of the inquisitive
mermaid desperate to discover human life with all its joys and
horrors which she discovers in a search for love and self love. Her
speechless pleas to her would-be Prince lover are heart breaking as is
her desire to be loved and the indignities suffered to gain human
love in a stuffy royal court. An announcement that Twomey has
sustained an injury prior to the show and is to be performing the
role in a less physical way doesn't reflect whatsoever on her
delicate and considered performance tonight.
Woven throughout the
story is a central character called Blue. Blue is played with
sensitivity and energy by Natalie Gavin. Blue is also the teenage
girl viciously teased at the start of the play by her so called
school friends for the way she looks and acts. The cruelty reflects
the reality of extreme styling by girls to win or attract attention
from their contemporaries and boys or men. Throughout the play there
are constant references to mirrors, critical gaze and a sense of self
in people of both sexes. Gavin's Blue documents the story during the
play in a big book and, in a sense, directs the action through a
force of will and growing self confidence often linking herself
deeply with the mermaid.
Blue's mother, played
by the wonderfully versatile Polly Frame, is portrayed as a woman
suffering parental frustrations as well as being exasperated by the
attitudes of her unemployed husband. Frame also plays Grand Mer the
older mermaid and the haughty Queen in the royal household in several
miracles of quick change.
All of the actors are
tremendously flexible not only in the divergent parts they play but
in the hard physical work and necessarily supple nature of the piece.
The two men in Mermaid portray the emotionally crippled and
physically drowned soldier Prince (Finn Hanlon) and the King (Steve
North) plus fishermen in a stormy sea. All of their characters stand
up well in a sea of actresses.
Much of the terrific
atmosphere is generated through sounds of the sea and of waves and
undercurrents that batter the mermaids across and under the stage.
The sound scape is created by composer and sound director Jon
Nicholls. Equally thrilling is the live tonal singing by the mermaids
and the supporting songs from a chorus of twenty-six young girls who
sit as witnesses at the sides of the set. Director Polly Teale
wanted the local girls in the work to bear witness as the girls on
stage face the challenges of being a young woman in a complex world.
As the plays tours other local girls will be involved in this way and
they will all take part in a nationwide project that accompanies the
show and looks at the effect of the media on girls' sense of self and
empowers them to challenge myths about femininity.
This poetic stage
adaptation is as profoundly deep as the ocean itself and its
universal themes of separation, desire, loss, loneliness, and
pre-occupation with appearance to please others are very evident and
beautifully demonstrated with Shared Experience's thrilling style on
stage tonight. As a piece of theatre it works swimmingly well.
Mermaid production photos credit Robert Day