The play by Polly Teale is described by the publisher as “a bold reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of love, loss and desire, transported to a contemporary setting”. So, this fairy story presented nothing very surprising in terms of plot, but relied for its impact on creating a magical, supernatural atmosphere especially for the underwater scenes. This was brilliantly achieved by this ensemble company.
The production was a collaboration between three degree courses at the Arts University Bournemouth – Acting, Costume and Performance Design, and Make-Up for Media and Performance. The company of nearly 70 students were supported by three staff/visiting professionals who took on the roles of Director, Lighting Designer and Musical Director/Composer.
Andersen’s story gives an account of the journey of a mermaid who, when reaching the age of 16, leaves her home beneath the waves to be with a mortal Prince who she has fallen in love with, something akin to the plot of the film Splash. However, the deal is that she will be given a human form in return for losing her beautiful singing voice. To complicate matters, her world in the ocean is a place where there is no pain or death, but the human world suffers from war and poverty.
The simple set using huge jellyfish hanging from the ceiling, a step ladder and buckets of water, was complemented by an open rostrum which served as a stage for the outdoor scenes, with a dressing area beneath.
The principal part of the Little Mermaid was taken by Molly Coates (who reminded me of Grace Kelly when dressed as the love interest of the Prince, after the fish to girl transformation). She was quite extraordinary in conveying the innocence and unworldliness (and other worldliness) of the Mermaid. It was essential that she expressed love, loss and longing, which she did beautifully, even after she had lost her voice. She was also hilarious when having gained legs instead of a tail, she had to learn to use them!
I was also impressed with Hannah Kihlgren as Grandmer who was convincing as the wise woman of the seas, warning the Mermaid against following her heart. It is difficult to pick out other members of the cast – Ethan Cawthorn, Tilda Collecott, Lois Froude, Tyler Rochester, Coryn Pryce, Maria Marques Neves, Molly Hannant and Georgina Anice. They all played multiple roles and suffice to say that they were all very accomplished, whether playing Mermaids, news reporters or fishermen.
It was inspiring to see the display of costumes diagrams, which were then made for the production. They were both beautifully illustrated and creative. The design cleverly steered away from stereotyped blue, whilst allowing the actors free movement as creatures of the deep. The Mermaids were made more believable as sea creatures by constantly moving, as if by the swell of the waves. Their haunting singing added another layer to the sensory experience, as it was eerily beautiful.
Key to creating the spell-binding atmosphere were the lighting and sound, which needed to change with the mood of the piece. Here again, there was great attention to detail with a range of lighting sources used to enhance the scenes, and sound effects that meant we believed we were watching raging oceans or formal state occasions.
It is a shame that this production will not be seen by bigger audiences, as it would be an ideal alternative to the usual diet of pantomimes over the Christmas period, and I’m sure both children and adults would be enchanted by it. I highly recommend you catch it if you can on Friday 10 and Saturday 11 December (matinee and evening).