The Little Mermaid

Rating ****
Reviewed by Sarah Day

Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
Playing until 12th January 2014

If you want your mermaid to be human (Edvard Collin tells a young Hans Christian Anderson struggling to find his voice), give her human traits. Make her fallible. I would add to that, don’t dress her in a shiny tail, fake seaweed and pink hair.

The fairy tale characters in this re-telling of Anderson’s early life and the writing of his most famous story, are anything but human. Try to overlook that though, because interspersed is some compelling, beautifully written drama.

This is a play of two halves. Real and imaginary, legless and finless, moving drama and pantomime. In the hands of a less skilled writer, it would be hard to keep up. Old Hans tells a mysterious girl the tale of the little mermaid, during which his story is re-enacted, during which the parallels between her life and his own are illustrated using flashbacks to the early days of his career.

The transitions are beautifully written and effortlessly performed; the cast move elegantly between their respective roles and scenes, especially when their characters mirror each other. Stu Mansell (as the fairy tale prince and object of young Han’s passionate glances) does this particularly well. Jennifer Johnson, in a variety of roles, makes each one distinctive and memorable. As young Anderson, Anthony Pinnick is suitably wide eyed and passionate, delivering both humour and heartbreak.

It’s a brilliant premise. Everyone knows that the original little mermaid was a dark tale of unrequited love and suppression, culminating in her death (or was it?) but the parallels with Anderson’s own life, and his own struggle to find his voice, were new to me. The scenes between Hans and Edvard, charged with awkward, restrained passion, were beautifully done.

The biggest applause has to go to David Shopland and Callum Hughes (the writers) as this is a very special script. True to the period, witty, clever, and heart breaking when it needs to be.

Unfortunately, to enjoy this show, you’ll need to sit through about 25 minutes of pantomime. This might appeal to some audiences, especially at Christmas but to me it took away from the depth of the rest of the performance.

‘Then you will die’, the sea witch tells our heroine, as she contemplates giving up on love. What does that mean for the man at the end of the pen? Does he think he will die without Edvard? That his life will cease to have meaning? At such a crucial moment, there’s no sense that these characters have anything to do with their creator. The line is delivered in a throwaway, pantomime cackle.

All I can say is, sit on the right hand side. That’s where the magic is happening. On the left, mermaids drape themselves elegantly across the stage, wafting their hands to evoke their watery surroundings, dressed for a kind of 80s underwater themed prom. It’s impossible not to think of Disney. The pink curls, the shiny fish tail skirts, the green Halloween wig and obligatory hysterical laughter from the baddie. Why allow us to recall that version for a second, when the original is so much darker, so much more fascinating? It all culminates in a slightly horrifying musical number at the end of the first half which all but undoes the excellent work done by the rest of the play.

Other musical interludes blend more easily – there’s an entertaining sea shanty, a beautifully sung folk song and some sensitively played background music. This is not a musical. When it tries to be, it fails.

‘The story of my life will be the best commentary to all my works’ says old Hans, as young Hans appears beside him. He’s not wrong. When his life is the focal point, this is a fantastic play. If you can grin and bear it through the pantomime, The Little Mermaid is worth a watch.