The Little Mermaid

David Nixon, music by Sally Beamish

Northern Ballet

Leeds Grand Theatre

From 05 December 2017 to 17 December 2017

Review by James Ballands

2017 has been a particularly busy time for Northern Ballet with three new shows receiving their world premières. An erotically charged Casanova was followed by an audacious adaptation of John Boyne’s Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, both of which provoked strong reactions from audiences and critics alike. However, for its third new show of the year, Northern Ballet has opted for more family-friendly material.

The Little Mermaid is familiar to many of us through the classic Disney film, but Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale is far darker than the animated version. It is a tale of thwarted love, sacrifice and endurance. There’s no singing crab to lighten the mood, and our heroine, alas, does not live happily ever after.

Marilla (Abigail Prudames) lives at the bottom of the sea with her older sisters Evelina (Hannah Bateman) and Erina (Miki Akuta). When she comes across a locket containing the likeness of the dashing Prince Adair (Joseph Taylor), she falls madly in love with him.

After saving Adair from a shipwreck, Marilla seeks out the help of Lyr (Matthew Topliss), the fish-faced Lord of the Sea. He agrees to turn her into a human in exchange for her beautiful voice, but every step she takes with her new legs will cause her considerable pain.

Without her voice, Marilla is unable to win Adair’s affections, and she is forced to watch in mute horror as he weds Dana (Dreda Blow), believing her to be the woman who saved him from the shipwreck. Marilla is given one chance to return to the sea, but it means sacrificing the life of her beloved.

The Little Mermaid is a beguiling and enchanting show, and undoubtedly one of the best I’ve seen from Northern Ballet. While I found The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas thrilling at times, the production was unable to fully solve the tonal problems inherent in the novel. The Little Mermaid, on the other hand, is immensely pleasurable from beginning to end.

Director and choreographer David Nixon was drawn to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, in part, because of the technical challenges it posed. Ballet has an otherworldly quality that lends itself well to tales of the supernatural, and Dixon’s choreography masterfully captures the weightlessness of being underwater. As the three mermaids are lifted across the stage by the male ensemble, they appear to be effortlessly gliding through the water.

The choreography is equally impressive on terra ferma. Composer Sally Beamish has a long-standing interest in Scottish traditional music and this Celtic influence has fed into Nixon’s choreography, not to mention the costume design.

The Little Mermaid is thrillingly danced by a talented ensemble who inhabit their roles with aplomb. Abigail Prudames movingly conveys Marilla’s physical suffering (particularly in the scenes where she struggles to adjust to her physical transformation) and the overwhelming agony of unrequited love.

Joseph Taylor dances beautifully as Prince Adair, particularly in his first duet with Prudames. Matthew Topliss is suitably menacing as the monstrous sea king, and Kevin Poeung is delightful as Marilla’s best friend, the seahorse Dillion.

The Little Mermaid is also visually arresting. Conceived by Kimie Nakano, the set design is simple yet multi-faceted, clearly delineating between land and sea. I was particularly struck by the shimmering backdrop through which the underwater characters spy on their land-based counterparts. Moreover, the set is beautifully accentuated by Tim Mitchell’s lighting.

Although I found the storytelling crystal clear for the most part, there were a few moments where the narrative became slightly opaque. I must confess that I was left baffled by the production’s final image. However, these are only minor quibbles.

David Nixon’s imaginative choreography and Sally Beamish’s lovely score make The Little Mermaid an irresistible Christmas treat.