In early Spring 2020 Fat Rascal’s podcast was the soundtrack to my first lockdown jigsaws, while theatre company founder Robyn Grant busied herself and the team with expanding Unfortunate’s story and the amount of songs to an evening filling production: The potty-mouthed retelling of Disney’s The Little Mermaid from sea witch Ursula’s perspective offers sheer endless opportunities for innuendo-heavy, deep-sea vocabulary.
It’s not the first alternative exploration of Arielle’s nemesis: Serena Valentino dedicated a whole novel to her as part of her Villains book series. And because my main metal buddy is also my Disney buddy (the two go unexpectedly well together), I have received and read Poor Unfortunate Soul, a less filthy novelisation on Ursula’s retelling of Disney’s 1989 cartoon The Little Mermaid (itself an uplifting interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-breaking fairytale). The book and Unfortunate compliment each other in their lushness of nautical puns and descriptions – but, and this is the exciting part, one was authorised by the big American corporation and the other one clearly and proudly has not. Authorised was of course also Triton’s Theatre, a half an hour indoor show in Tokyo’s Disney On Sea theme park, but back there, Ursula was an animatronic while Arielle flew, surrounded by bubbles, lilting over our heads. In the stage version on Disney+ Queen Latifah rocked the black tentacles and its purple suckers. No doubt: Mermaids on stage are exciting, cephalopods even more!
The Underbelly Festival and its iconic purple Udderbelly cow stage moved after years at London’s Southbank to Kensington’s Earls Court district. Now, there are not as many passing visitors, who – attracted by the setting – aim to get some fringe atmosphere by a glass of Pimms rather than watching a dedicated performance. We spot only a handful of other visitors when we arrive, enjoy a drink in the early evening sun and realize that an Aperol Spritz costs £10 on one corner, £8 on another. Slowly more visitors arrive with colourful hair, silver tentacled hoops and Life Of Pi totes. By the time we have built up an appetite, the pizza baker has received so many orders that we wouldn’t receive ours before the show starts. Chips it is then.
Following the press photos for the enlarged production two years after the initial, covid-interrupted run, unexpectedly tonight Robyn Grant got back in the tremendous tentacle suit and plays the anti-heroine herself: Experiencing her enjoying her foul-language powered outbursts on the wetness of the sea and everything else is worth a girlcrush. Cancelled for being outspoken (and sarcastic), the leather jacket-wearing Octo girl uttering uncomfortable truth in royal, conservative circles, stays in the deep sea as a banished sea witch, after also being accused of the murder of a sea cucumber princess. She will spend the following years brooding over her revenge for this conspiracy while failing to forget the body-glitter wearing sea prince in the tinsel-castle she got on so promisingly with initially. A choir of sea creatures mourning the fact they were too ugly for Disney’s cartoon are her companions down here. Permanently on stage are also a keyboard player, a trumpeter and percussions. Crustaceans with castanets are not missing either. Props and puppets are more than once vamped up sex shop items (I don’t spot any primary school-aged children in the audience in the second part), the mohawk’d sea baby dolls in the finale are my personal favourite. Ursula’s pet-hate are men, and Essex accented naïve, cam-girl wig-bearing teenagers with big dreams of a world with male genitalia: Here is the recipe for a sung, body-positivity and body-switch parade with environmental messages, performed by a very talented cast with and without love handles.
What would House of the Mouse composer Alan Menken make of this fond screwball homage under the waves? Will the film creators get and respect the nods to Frozen, Grease and even Wicked, 33 years after the film’s cinema release? Would trans legend Divine love it, herself the real-life inspiration for Disney’s Ursula? Of the latter, I am sure, and the audience tonight loves it as well.
**** out of 5 stars
Book and Lyrics by Robyn Grant & Daniel Foxx, Music, Arrangements & Orchestrations: Tim Gilvin, directed by Robyn Grant
We paid £29 per ticket in the premium Sirloin seats. After its London run, Unfortunate continued its UK tour.