Metta's Little Mermaid - Family Theatre Review

Metta Theatre have a long history of producing exciting, female-led re-imaginings of popular tales. Often filled with circus, dance, song, poetry and music, this is true family theatre at its best. Last year, their astonishing ‘Jungle Book’ wowed crowds at the Spiegeltent on Southbank and on tour. This year, director and writer Poppy Burton-Morgan tackles the classic tale of a young mermaid falling in love. Challenging the original Hans Christian Anderson tale and the problematic Disney version, here we have a piece that is both incredibly clever, layered and thrilling to watch.

As always with Metta’s work, there are some simply breath-taking moments of circus magic. The use of aerial hoop work to represent the huge storm that nearly drowns the adventure-seeking Prince into the sea, transforms into a gorgeous aerial duet between the Prince (Ben Di’Ath) and the Little Mermaid (Rosie Rowlands) as she drags him onto shore. The clever fluidity of their movements really ensure this moment works beautifully and believably as something that’s happening in water.

Spells are cast in the circular magic of the cyr wheel, with the Sea Witch (a strong Roo Jenkyn-Jones) using her skills to entrap, frighten and mesmerise her victim. The use of sound to emphasise story is perfection here, and I doubt there was a child (or adult!) in the audience who didn’t jump with fear when the wheel slammed onto the stage, underlining the potential finality of Little’s decision. There was also a clever moment of contact juggling when the Sea Witch captures the voice of the little mermaid.

Light up juggling balls are used to great effect, in a hypnotic sequence. Some sweet puppetry with The Little Mermaid’s seahorse companion has a lovely resolve at the close of the play. It’s moment after moment of entertaining and engaging multi-disciplinary work. There are some great turns too from the rest of the ensemble, not least the sassiest of hand flicks mixed with the strongest of acrobatics from Josh Frazer, and the extremely talented Rosalind Ford, who is clearly a skilled musician, singer and all-round performer.

This is all perfectly enhanced by William Reynolds stunning lighting. Skilfully taking us beneath the swirling foam of the waves from the moment we enter the space, there is a watchful eye on cleverly identifying life above and below the sea. The lighting also helps highlight the real hard-hitting moments of the story. When the Little Mermaid gets her legs from the Sea Witch, the whole stage flashes red, as red ballerina pumps are laced onto her new legs – there is no glossing over what a huge and bloody decision she has made in the pursuit of a life above the waves in this re-telling.

Similarly, the clever colour-coding of Loren Elstein’s costume design helps us follow story trails when we are above and below sea. We can easily trace who is who despite several character changes, and it is nice change to see the Sea Witch represented more as a jellyfish, rather than a cephalopod or octopus. What is always exciting about Metta’s costumes is the playful simplicity – the pieces are magical in that their elements are familiar and accessible but join together to create something altogether astonishing.

As always, Burton-Morgan has the ability to layer several meanings onto a familiar tale. Here we have a big emphasis on female familial relationships, subverting gender roles and a warning against fetishizing the ‘other’. Most importantly, this piece challenges the idea of ‘changing’ who you are for love by highlighting that real love is about give and take and sacrifices on both sides. Also, interesting to note here is the bold, brashness of the Little Mermaid herself. It is she who pursues the Prince intently, she who goes to kiss him first, and whilst one could argue this is something inherent in the Disney version, here it all feels much more assured and confident. This little mermaid knows what/who she wants and is simply unafraid of obeying ‘social norms’ to achieve her goal. She is her own agent. On top of all that, the end message of love and acceptance, even in the face of difficult or fractured familial relationships, is heart-warming and likely hits home for many of the adults in the audience.

There are a few small moments where the singing may not be as perfect as it could be, but I have nothing but admiration for anyone who can manipulate their bodies so physically and still manage to do any singing at all! These are minor bumps in what is otherwise a delightfully immersive and engaging production. Metta once again manage to tackle some of our problematic cultural currency by creating female-focused, intelligently-layered fun for all the family. Long may they continue!

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