Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale is a stark rite-of-passage story about a mermaid who gives up her voice and embraces constant pain to appeal to a mortal prince; only by repudiating her true self can she find love. Polly Teale and Shared Experience – celebrated for their innovative versions of novels such as Jane Eyre – have taken this material and made something complicated and modern which is charming, moody, occasionally horrifying and true to teen angst.
Teenager Blue (a heartfelt performance by Natalie Gavin) is bullied for finding solace in an imaginary world inhabited by mermaids and for being unable to afford fashionable trainers. When she rescues a prince from drowning, the fairytale mingles with reality, but Blue is in charge, inventing the whole story for her homework. Her point of view (through a mermaid’s eyes) is a sophisticated if Ruritanian one, encompassing the waste of war, the gilded prison of royalty and the pressure on women (often by women) to conform in their appearance.
The Little Mermaid (newcomer Sarah Twomey) loses her tongue, suffers painful depilation and tumbles in high heels, but the prince (Finn Hanlon), newly returned from Afghanistan, is also troubled, spouting Descartes and feeling forced into a role. This is intriguing, but the ending, a mixture of fantasy and reality, offers only a muddled resolution.
The mermaids, especially Twomey, move with the lilting grace of wave-borne seaweed in Liz Ranken’s sinuous choreography. Tom Piper’s set of battered mirrors provides a dark but glinting environment and Jon Nicholls’ soundscape (amplified at each venue by a chorus of local young women) is magically otherworldly.