The current season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds is shaping up to be brilliant. There’s all sorts on offer, and if you pop down the stairs to the Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre you’ll find something very different and unique – Mermaid. Penned and directed by Shared Experience Artistic Director Polly Teale, in association with Nottingham Playhouse, Mermaid is a modern re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless fairytale about love and the loss of innocence.
Mermaid begins by dimming the lights down and unleashing the sound of roaring ocean waves through the theatre’s speakers, and we’re taken into the bedroom of thirteen-year-old Blue (Natalie Gavin). She sits on her phone, envious of her friends who are at a party she hasn’t been invited to. Her mum (Polly Frame) comes in and asks her what’s up, and we find out that we’re sat in on a world affected by poverty. Blue’s friends constantly tease her about the clothes she wears, her body and her favourite pastime – writing about and believing in the mythical Mermaids. After receiving an unpleasant video call from her friends at the party, Blue begins to write furiously about the creatures she loves to escape the torment, and we’re transported into the darkest depths of her imagination.
The stage is washed over with blue light and dazzling effects, and we gradually come face to face with the fantastical figments of her story – the Mermaids (Miranda Mac Letten, Ritu Arya and Amaka Okafor respectively), the wise old Grandmer (Frame) and the titular Little Mermaid (Sarah Twomey). We see how each Mermaid comes of age and journeys to the surface to see the world above the depths before returning to exist in the limitless ocean forever, but the Little Mermaid craves a new life. Her curiosity gets the better of her when she comes of age, meets and falls in love with a mortal Prince (Finn Hanlon), and it isn’t long before things take a much darker turn – her story becomes entwined with that of Blue’s before speeding towards a powerful dramatic conclusion.
Sounds pretty epic, right? Right. And let me tell you, Mermaid oozes quality through and through. The whole company work incredibly well together as an ensemble, and the actors shift effortlessly between characters, all of which are well developed and polished. The physicality of all of the Mermaids is amazing, and they flow with grace and drip with character in all of their scenes and interactions.
In addition to a strong, powerful cast, there’s also an equally powerful and beautifully designed set that functions perfectly throughout the piece. Designed by Tom Piper, much of the stage is raised up, and a lot of the play’s action takes place on this higher part while the Mermaids reside beneath the stage, elegantly coming out from underneath to transport us to a completely different world. The set also contributes to the fantastic overall scenography of the piece, which is topped off brilliantly by Oliver Fenwick’s awesome lighting design and Jon Nicholls’s haunting sound effects and soundscapes, delivered by a choir of girls at the side of the stage.
Mermaid is mind-blowing: it’s a beautiful, haunting and incredible piece of theatre that seeks to communicate properly with us through its writing, its design and its characters. It’s engaging and an absolute joy to watch, and I guarantee that there’ll be something you can take away from this fresh, relevant production.
Mermaid is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 28 March. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.