In Pins and Needles and Bea William’s co-devised retelling of Little Mermaid, there’s not a singing crab or a fork hairbrush in sight, but nor does the show resemble Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale much either. Creatively freeing themselves from the shackles of Disney and the original author’s work, they present an almost completely new story, with a gutsy leading lady (among a cast of strong-willed women) motivated not by a man but by curiosity. Mermaid Morgan (Anna Wheatley) is led astray by Celeste (Meghan Treadway), a banished sea witch with a black beehive, killer mermaid skirt, and her own jazz den, though in this sophisticated reimagining Celeste’s transgressions perhaps pale in comparison to the immorality of someone closer to home. But then, can any of the characters really be villains, when they’re all victims of oppressive societal structures and the resulting pressure to conform?
Under the sea, Morgan is trapped by the norms – and fashion choices – of the 1950s, forced to live a life of pearls, pastel prom dresses and deportment lessons. Her only role as fourth in line to the throne is one of wife-in-waiting, with Grandmama – the sea kingdom’s queen – training her up to marry her off as soon as she comes of age. ‘Ladylike’ behaviour doesn’t come naturally to the slouchy, back-chatting princess, who is late to royal duties, trips over her own fins at balls, sneaks off with a book to avoid meeting dignitaries, and doesn’t take any sexist shit from idiots like Viscount Terence (Timothy O’Hara), an aristocratic angler fish intent on marrying her. Morgan longs to escape the claustrophobic depths of the palace walls, but the memory of the mysteriously-named ‘Terrible Calamity’, wreaked upon the mer-folk by the feared two-legged land people, threatens to make that an unlikely prospect.
Spoiler: Morgan does eventually make it to shore – Torquay, to be precise – and finds a colourful, synth-pop 1980s world of big hair and tutus, a clever contrast with the claustrophobic ‘50s set-up in the sea. Though one thing stays the same – there’s still an annoying bloke who won’t take no for answer, except this time he’s not a noble but a yuppie called Hugo. It’s a thread that really resonates post-Weinstein: whether you’re above or below sea level, it’s difficult to escape slimy (and, under-water, presumably scaly) men who just won’t quit despite Morgan’s clear disinterest. But though the mermaid isn’t looking for love, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t find it…
As the revelatory shift between decades suggests, Little Mermaid achieves so much through Zoe Squire’s design, such as the handheld fans wafted by the immaculately dressed mer-folk to represent their tail-fins. The palace found at the bottom of the ocean is a crumbling wreck, with realistic projections on the cracked panes of glass that really look like the shadows of shoals of fish passing by. Composer and musical arranger Jack Drewry also does much to transport Morgan, and the audience, from sea to land, and from the middle of the 20th Century to Margaret Thatcher’s favourite decade. The ambient sound of muffled murmurs and rumblings place us miles below the water’s surface,; it’s there that Morgan and her sisters become a 1950s 4-part vocal harmony group, while on land, her new friends sing along to ’80s pop hits. It’s the saxophone that ties the two worlds together, from the haunting music of Celeste’s jazz den to the Wham vibes of Torquay’s beach-side clubs.
The downside of staging what is basically a brand new story is, obviously, the audience’s unfamiliarity with the tale. Perhaps because of this, Little Mermaid is sometimes overly expository, which has a knock-on effect on pacing – the production struggles to get, and keep, going – and length – it could do with being at least 20 minutes shorter.
Still, it’s Pins and Needles’ radical changes that make this a genuinely modern, progressive production. Family theatre has really turned a corner so that this Christmas, in shows and pantos across the country, you’re unlikely to see a female lead who isn’t ‘feisty’, or an adaptation that isn’t ‘feminist’. But often this amounts to plonking a princess on-stage who gets all the bravery and backstory but still acts as an anomaly against female stereotypes who are either bitchy or simpering. This show, on the other hand, ensures that all the women are complex and multi-faceted, so that the show is as much about gradually understanding their motivations and character, as it is about finding out what happens next. Little Mermaid a coming of age story in which adulthood is marked not by marriage but personal growth, falling in love is about the person not their gender, and happy endings aren’t rushed into.
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