Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Stunning Mermaid is right off the scale

WHAT to make of Mermaid at The Playhouse? Stunning, yes; visually exciting, yes; sexy, oh yes!

WHAT to make of Mermaid at The Playhouse? Stunning, yes; visually exciting, yes; sexy, oh yes! As for what it meant, I’m still working it out, but it hardly matters, it’s a beautiful piece of theatre.

Mermaid is an update for the 21st century of The Little Mermaid, a children’s story made adult in this exquisite production. Polly Teale brings her excellent track record back to the Playhouse with Shared Experience to take us into a world of fantasy with real life sewn into it. Real life in the form of yearning, frustration, angst and pragmatism.

How does that fit a children’s story? Quite easily, they are all meant to prepare us for being grown up by presenting us with aerated versions of what’s to come. Here Ms Teale fills in the gaps, but while it’s sexy it’s never lewd or suggestive and there remains an innocence about it.

The first two-thirds is taken up with a band of immortal mermaids playing, dolphin-like, beneath the waves as their mentor explains the ways of man. One of them encounters a drowning prince and brings him back to the surface. He is saved.

It’s not really a spoiler to say she winds up forsaking her mermaidenhood — and her voice — to pursue the prince, convert her tail to legs and live unhappily on land.

But woven into this are adult themes about family expectation, war and violence, media exploitation and parasitism. So while she strains to get above the surface, the prince is trying to get below it again, to some unknowable contentment. Illustrations of real-life combat in Afghanistan and the royal family — Princes Harry and William — come up against the fairy story and beat it down.

Special mention must be made of the movement which is so convincing that we could almost start gasping for air for all the belief that we’re underwater. The mermaids have no tails but use their legs as if they are dolphins and playfully move up, down and across like children in the water. Sometimes this is so effective it distracts from the dialogue, but that’s easily forgiven.

Frankly this piece is so alive with ideas, philosophies and physicality that trying to establish what it’s about will have to come later, when it’s all gelled. In the meantime it’s best to let it wash over you and just experience it in the moment. It’s worth it.

Mermaid is at the Oxford Playhouse until tomorrow (Saturday).

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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