It takes guts to tackle a classic. I always think of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ – a song revered in its original form, and later immortalized by monumental cover versions. You’d have to be either brave or stupid to present your own iteration – one of countless others, burdened by expectation, and with every likelihood of being superfluous – to the world.
Brave or stupid… feeling pretty assured that neither emerging director/creative whiz Ian Sinclair nor local promoter/dynamo/producer Sophie Fosdick-McGrath are the latter, I head into The Blue Room to witness their new effort: THE LITTLE MERMAID. Yes, it’s based on Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fairy tale – memorably reworked into one of Disney’s most successful films; no, it’s not especially faithful to its source material. We can be thankful for that looseness. What emerges is not so much an adaptation as a unique, original, eerie and deceptively simple play that takes Andersen’s tale as a departure point – rather than a blueprint.
After slapping a self-curling band around my wrist and receiving a complimentary flute of champagne (fancy, baby), I wander into the theatre space. The wall behind the stage is bedecked with countless angular, irregular, rusting sheets of corrugated tin – the sort of roof tin that’s synonymous with a withering Australian beach house. Coloured lights move and brood around the room. At stage left, an industrial fan blows upwards from the floor; in its gusty path dances JACINTA LARCOMBE – the blue-haired, titular little mermaid, here named Grace. With no fish tail in sight, she nevertheless presages her oceanic persona with liquidy, languorous gyration amid mottled light and the bubbling synth and beats of Perth soundweaver LAURA-JANE LOWTHER, aka KUCKA. The audience sinks into position, with only Larcombe’s hypnotic whirl ahead.
Very soon, however, appears Grace’s mother, Nina, played by GEORGIA KING – her face pulled into a sour, authoritative grimace that underscores her presence throughout the ensuing tale. She scolds Grace for dancing in her underwear in the sprinklers on the front lawn, shrieking cautions of creeps and weirdos that could be prowling their coastal suburban neighbourhood. Yet as she rants, Nina betrays a bizarre and deeply manipulative streak – speaking with the nasty relish of a slave master – implying that sinister forces may lie even closer to home.
Now we begin to meet Grace properly: as an almost archetypal impressionable teenager, infatuated with Leonardo DiCaprio (whose bedside poster she confers with and smooches), filled with a sense of uncertainty and unbelonging, spellbound by the notion of meeting boys, living like the other kids, and eluding her mother’s controlling grasp. In the local arcade (amid a sequence strongly recalling ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’), Grace surrealistically “becomes” her Mortal Kombat character and wards off demonic enemies with the help of a tall, dark, handsome stranger (a high-scoring 25 year old named James, played by BEN GILL). They flirt shyly; James invites Grace to his birthday party in “the house on the hill.”
Back home, Grace’s mother reacts with unsettling excitement and zeal to Grace meeting a boy. But it’s the excitement of a reluctant adult, delighting at the prospect of revisiting her youth vicariously through her daughter; she derails their discussion to instead narrate and act-out her drunken Year 12 ball, dancing to saccharine ‘90s hits (plus a charmingly tongue-in-cheek Kucka pop ballad) and proffering unnecessary sexual and spew-related details. It’s hilarious, but equally grotesque and grim: here, Nina’s revealed as a spoiled schoolyard brat who – even as a mother – has never grown up, or found a calling that transcends high school popularity. Grace goes to the party, dances to some ultra-modern bangers (courtesy Kucka again), and then visits a nearby jetty alone with James. The handsomely awkward, understated and poignant sequence that follows takes us through to sunrise.
Up to now, the whole thing feels a lot more ‘Tim Winton’ than ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (albeit with a winking seapunk-meets-Australiana aesthetic that broadly sidesteps both) – still, the original fairy tale quietly drives the narrative and character dynamic along. Nina is analogous to the mermaid princess’ father, the autocratic patriarch of the sea (and as Colosoul’s Ryan Lewis has noted, she’s simultaneously the unwholesome influence, the “witch” figure – Ursula, to use the Disney name – thanks to her strange fits of immaturity and nostalgia, which spur Grace on towards hedonism). James is that land-bound, seemingly perfect prince who the mermaid spies on her first trip to the surface. In the original story, the mermaid princess trades a witch her tongue (which had allowed her to sing beautifully) for the magic “draught” which gives her a human life and an immortal, heaven-bound soul. Here, the exchange is less fanciful, but more haunting; amid her foray into wild adolescence, Grace is betrayed by the people she loves most – trading the thrill of experience for the wide-eyed innocence and optimism that had been at her core.
As we wind up, our “mermaid” takes solace in the sea, and in a personal mythology whereby her real mother is a mermaid, her father a long-lost surfer, and she herself a product of “weird mermaid sex.” It’s an ambiguous, magic realist and layered chain of events that comes to a surprisingly abrupt halt just as it reaches terminal velocity. Wisely, Ian “Houston” Sinclair has opted to follow the twists and turns of Andersen’s original in subtle, oblique ways (like having Grace dance “mutely” to impress the “prince,” as per the original), rather than riffing on the pop culture status of its more iconic elements. Larcombe and Gill – both relative newcomers to the acting world, as far as I’m aware – do superbly as the central teenage pair, injecting genuine humour and realism into the roles. Georgia King’s greater breadth of experience is evident, meanwhile, and is crucial in making the strange and conflicted character of Nina come off successfully. Kudos must go to the stage production team, who provide a fittingly skewed ambience through the stylized lighting, and a minimal but perfect set (the tin sheets, a kitsch retro deckchair, bubbles, a multi-purpose catwalk). It’s hard to fault THE LITTLE MERMAID except that perhaps, for a play about diving into life’s tangled trials and then running for the sea, it didn’t delve as deep as it might’ve – wrapping up in under an hour when its quality could have sustained it for much longer. But hey, I’m not about to ask anyone to prolong a play for the sake of prolonging a play. THE LITTLE MERMAID is a comedic, weird, melancholy, fun and wholly convincing production – deftly reimagining a timeless narrative, but never relying upon it to stay afloat. I can hardly wait to see what this bunch of talented wunderkinds get up to next.