Playmill returns to the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. A three-week curated season of brand new work, from “some of the UK’s most exciting emerging theatre makers.” There’s supposedly something for everyone, and the jam-packed programme contains drama, comedy, musicals theatre, and everything in-between. Kicking it all off, however is Mermaids – a comedy about a trans woman named Lia (Jo Eaton-Kent), her brother Danny (Ray James) who is living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in the armed forces, and her best friend and single mother of three Carly (Carrie Rock). After the death of Lia and Danny’s father, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Lia and Carrie’s relationship is tested too, when Lia becomes depressed and pushes Carrie away. Like some sort of Disney TV movie, the whole thing builds up to a school reunion/dance and whether they’ll all go, spoiler alert: they do, and it’s all a big happy ending.
Mermaids is allegedly performed by an all working-class cast, rightly so, as all the characters are supposed to be working class. The only one with any authenticity however, was Carrie Rock’s Carly. She may be written like a terrible caricature of Bianca Jackson from Eastenders – bejewelling everything, buying things from markets and being a single mother of three tottering around in wedges, but Rock gives Carly heart, warmth and resilience, and her delivery of off-the-cuff comments and her casual cursing give Carly realism that the other characters lack.
Eaton-Kent as Lia is at times painful to watch, consistently fluffing lines and stumbling over words. It happened so often it almost became annoying. But, when their comic timing is in check, they are highly entertaining and have a magnetic presence onstage. Ray James as Danny gives a rather intense performance, which is to be expected as his character is suffering from a rather intense mental illness, but is perhaps a bit over-acted. He is either absolutely explosive, or seems uncomfortable and misplaced. Whether this is intentional or not, I’m not sure. James and Eaton-Kent have captured the strained dynamic of siblings that don’t always see eye-to-eye quite well though, and Eaton-Kent and Rock as Carly and Lia bounce off one another naturally.
Joanne Sherryden’s writing really is very funny, there’s one joke involving contour and Vienetta that I thought was rather inventive, but some of it is droll and predictable. There’s also a monologue of Danny’s in which he tells a graphic story from a tour in Afghanistan involving slaughtered children that I found crass and unnecessary, which is then forgotten about as soon as it is mentioned as we go back to Lia and her story. I find that the story building up to a lousy school dance is rather juvenile, and there were moments where it is just so, so cheesy. That being said, when do we ever see plays about trans people? Or working-class people? Let alone working-class trans people. And even then, when are they ever actually performed or written by the people they are about? Rarely. Mermaids might feel like it could’ve used another week or so of rehearsals, but it still tells a story that ought to be heard, by voices that are often ignored or silenced.
Mermaids is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 6 July as part of Playmill festival, running until 21 July
Photo: Andy McCredie