We’ve visited a few times this year but this is our first Christmas show at the Bristol Old Vic. It’s always a pleasure to be here and we feel that, somehow, we belong.
We arrive to chocolate men and mince pies on the table and, with half an hour to spare, we sit down in the bar area. My 7 year-old draws her newly invented cartoon character, Joe the Jerk, using stickers from the middle section of our The Little Mermaid programme to decorate his Life. Neither of us knows this particular Hans Christian Anderson fairy story so her version fits perfectly; it’s always good to use your imagination.
We take our seats at the front of the upper circle, both excited. ”Look, there’s Viv and Lilly,” she says, spotting our our friends directly beneath us in the Pit. Chatter all around; the theatre is full. Buzzing.
The blue curtain rises and we are in a land underwater. The Little Mermaid swims about and sings, her impressive tail held by various members of the cast. She yearns to reach 17 years old (they live to 1,000, you know!) so that she can escape just a few moments of the sub-aqua drudgery that is ‘songing’ for Sea Witch and get a tiny glimpse of life above the waves. All of her sisters are older and have already had the privilege and, oh my, what tales they tell of colour and sound and who-mons who have tiny little fins called legs.
When The Little Mermaid finally does swim up on her birthday, she saves the who-man Prince Will from death by drowning, even though her father has told her explicitly not to touch or talk to those walking, unusual folk. She falls in love with the Prince and he falls in love with the idea of her, that swimming creature who he never saw but heard – oh, such a beautiful singing voice has she. And so the story really begins – how the wicked Sea Witch offers a magical trade-off, how the Mermaid will die if the Prince marries another, how he can never hear her stunning voice, can never know who she truly is. Her voice for a pair of legs.
And, so, up to land she goes.
Initially, it’s difficult to see how such a determined, curious young woman could fall in love with Billy Howle’s foppish, mumbling Will but as soon as Katie Moore’s Little Mermaid becomes mute, it’s completely understood – they are the perfect match in their innocence and youth. They really do look like a couple destined to be together.
Beverly Rudd’s early entrance as Sea Witch so shocks my daughter that immediately on seeing her she laments, “I’m going to have nightmares!” But, like we all do with baddies, she wants more. Rudd’s character reminds me of a cross between a young Dawn French, Hyacinth Bucket and Miranda Richardson’s Queenie – powerful, comical and convincing. She also plays the parts of one of Little Mermaid’s six sisters and Doctor. In fact, bar the young couple in love, the whole cast takes on multiple roles. All with apparent ease.
And if Sea Witch is scary, my daughter giggles every single time Martin Bassindale’s Crab side-steps onto the stage (he has six characters to play!). ”He’s daft! Haha! Look at the way he walks.” Indeed, Bassindale has most of the audience guffawing, just as Rudd provokes them to Boo! and Hiss! This is the biggest surprise to me: I really wasn’t expecting any pantomime element at the Old Vic, didn’t forsee this level of audience participation. Although I’m glad that this element does exist in Joel Horwood’s adaptation – I love a good holler, sing-a-long and shout at the theatre, given the chance. The funniest, most interactive bit of the night is the talent competition, when we meet princesses from all over the globe, eager to woo the prince and gain his hand in marriage.
Hmm, and, speaking of hands, hers and mine remain clasped together nervously during the entirety of the last half hour of this production, when it seems that Sea Witch might then claim her man, his Kingdom and the heart of our heroine. I’m so pleased to see my neighbour wiping her eyes at the end, knowing that mine aren’t the only ones welling up!
Yes, this is for the whole family. If you have little people to take along, give them a treat. If you haven’t, you’ll probably love it anyway.
The Little Mermaid runs at Bristol Old Vic until18th January 2014
– review by Becky Condron