Monday 18 December 2023

Stage: We didn't make it to Disney

The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx
music Tim Gilvin
director Robyn Grant
with Shawna Hamic, River Medway, Thomas Lowe, Allie Dart, Julian Capolei, Jamie Mawson, Corrina Buchan, Jack Gray, Jamie McKillop, Milly Willows
choreography Melody Sinclair
sets/costumes/puppets Abby Clarke
lighting Adam King
Southwark Playhouse Elephant, London • 8.Dec.23-17.Feb.24

With a cheeky, adult-oriented sense of humour and dazzling staging, this riotous musical explores the story of The Little Mermaid through the eyes of the octopus villain Ursula. Even in the relatively small space at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, the show has a lavish scale with gorgeous sets and costumes, eye-catching lighting effects, elaborate choreography and ingenious puppet work. It's a bit let down by a sound mix that blurs the witty punchlines and lyrics, but enough gets through to keep us laughing.

Narrating the story in vibrant style, Ursula (Hamic) takes us back Wicked-style to her childhood and school days with the preening sexy merman heir to the throne Triton (Lowe). Ursula is unpopular at school, so their hilariously sexy romance is doomed. Flash forward 20 years, and Triton's daughter Ariel (Medway) strikes a bargain with the now outcast Ursula, sacrificing her voice to acquire legs so she can live on dry land with her beloved dim-bulb prince Eric (Mawson).  

Everything about this show is fresh and energetic, with a mix of new songs and pastiche numbers that are cleverly reworked. So Kiss the Girl becomes a plea for consent called Ask the Girl. And Part of Your World becomes something hilariously unprintable. Each is performed to the hilt by the gifted cast, with full-on staging and costume shenanigans that inventively recreate the worlds both above and under the sea. Colours are intense and visual gags abound, making this the kind of show in which it feels like the cast is having a lot of fun, and they're sharing it with us.

Hamic has wonderful presence as the rock chick Ursula, a neon-haired explosion of charisma and sarcasm. She keeps the story zipping along, and has terrific chemistry with the Lowe's hugely engaging himbo. Drag Race star Medway is wonderfully deadpan as Ariel, a young woman who isn't as ignorant as everyone wants her to be. And scenes are expertly stolen by the fiendishly talented all-singing, all-dancing duo of Allie Dart and Julian Cappolei, who play a variety of quick-change characters so expertly that each emerges as a favourite. Their comical timing and musical skills are perfection.

With its outrageously smutty plot and florid language, this is definitely not a show for the kids. But grown-ups will find it irresistible as it takes a gleefully askance approach to a childhood favourite, complete with a triumphant message about self-determination. While it smartly makes use of the entire space, the show feels a bit cramped into this venue, so it's nice to see that the forthcoming UK tour includes full-scale theatres. 

For information on the national tour until July 2024 UNFORTUNATE > 

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