Katie Moore as Little Mermaid (photo Simon Annand)

[Contains spoilers]

The Hans Christensen Anderson version of The Little Mermaid is pretty unpleasant – our heroine feels like she’s walking on broken glass every time she steps on her new feet and she dies at the end. The Disney version, in contrast, has a syrupy, love-conquers-all happy ending, brought about by the brave (human) prince killing the evil sea-witch.

Simon Godwin’s production tries to do both in Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show and ends up not quite hitting either target. Joel Horwood’s script is smart and fun, especially the blend between narrative and dialogue. Characters’ inner monologues are shared to great effect, illuminating the father-daughter relationship particularly well. The gossip and giggling of the mermaid sisters is nicely captured, too, and the prince blusters in a rather endearing way. The story has been slightly twisted to fit the need for a happy ending, but it’s cleverly done.

There’s a lot to like about this production. Beverly Rudd is fantastic as the Sea Witch, in a rather fabulous tentacled dress (designed by Jon Bausor) and armed with a cracking evil laugh. Billy Howle is excellent as the bumbling Prince and Claire Lams is entertaining as the Queen. The costumes (Bausor and Holly White) are fantastic, and the mermaids “swim” enjoyably.

The music, by Shlomo and DJ Walde is quite fun when it’s beat-boxing but feels listless and dull when it ventures into melody or lyrics. There’s one main song which is repeated several times – and it’s not a show stopper. This isn’t helped by the fact that Katie Moore, as the Little Mermaid, has an irritating, faux-American twang when singing, which is noticeably absent from her speaking voice. Given that singing is a major plot device and that so much of the success of the show rests on Moore’s shoulder, this is a real shame. The Little Mermaid herself is frustratingly passive, too. The characterisation lacks any real guts; despite what she goes through for love it all feels too wishy-washy.

There were elements of panto about this production, but by trying to retain the darkness of the original, Godwin hampers the fun elements of his show. It feels cheesy rather than light-hearted. I could have done without the rather crude bloke-in-a-dress gag, too; presumably a nod to panto tradition, it was not well done in this show and felt unnecessary. I understand the decision to tack-on a happy ending here – the heroine turning to sea-foam does put rather a dampener on the Christmas spirit – but it’s clumsily done: the Little Mermaid “dies” and then a criminally under-used Tristan Sturrock, as her father, pops up and explains that actually, they can sing her back to life, if only the audience will help them. Best left in Peter Pan, that one.

So, we get our happy ending after all, and are left with yet another rendition of the same song and a coupled-up Prince and Little Mermaid. The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it, but I question whether an X-Factor-style singing competition was the best way to update the story. There were some lovely moments, but overall this one’s a bit of a damp squib.

The Little Mermaid is at Bristol Old Vic until 18 January. For more information and tickets, visit Bristol Old Vic’s website.

Photo by Simon Annand.