The Little Mermaid
Jon Conway, with original music by Olly Ashmore
The Alban Arena, St Albans
Disney has a lot to answer for in the world of pantomime. We have Walt to thank for Snow White and Peter Pan the panto, with Caribbean pirates popping up everywhere recently due to Mr.Depp's popularity. Now, twenty years on from Disney's film, the world's largest pantomime company Qdos has decided to stage a pantomime version of The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid may well be a brand new pantomime adventure, as the advertising suggests, but it isn't 100% new. The 3D sequences appeared in Qdos' Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates in Newcastle last year, along with many of Olly Ashmore's catchy musical numbers. They have found a new home in this addition to Qdos' portfolio and fit well into a narrative which has many similarities to Newcastle's Robinson Crusoe: a mermaid is in love with a mortal, which brings about many complications whilst he embarks on a seafaring voyage in search of treasure. In both stories Cecil the 3D seahorse makes an appearance and comes to help out, so this is not our fishy friend's pantomime debut as the Qdos website would have you believe.
Full marks to Qdos for approaching a new title, but there are still some narrative problems. Upon his being shipwrecked, the little mermaid kisses human lover Horatio so that he can breathe under the water thanks to her special mermaid kiss. When the pirates also appear under the sea, they manage to survive without such a kiss and even have time to say 'Hello' to a passing SpongeBob SquarePants. The ending is also intriguing as, after begging to be turned into a Merman so that he can live beneath the waves with his lover, Horatio appears in human form for the finale, along with an all legs and no tail little mermaid, thus depicting a very different ending from that which the audience has just observed.
This production has no Dame or Buttons-like comic and perhaps that's why it feels more like a musical aimed at children than a pantomime. Nevertheless some panto conventions still remain, such as slapstick fun with a plank onboard the pirate ship and an awful lot of "It's behind you" due to the nature of the 3D sequences.
The 3D sequences are extremely clever and had the audience shrieking with delight (and fear) at swimming seahorses, scary sharks, spooky spiders and a sweet-hungry ogre. The technology used here is very advanced, but there's still a bit of work to be done in how it is used on the stage. As the actors perform in front of the 3D screen and interact with the projection, their shadows are cast onto the flat screen itself masking sections of the animation. The illusion of depth is therefore lost, scuppering the notion of the actors being engulfed in a three dimensional world.
Innis Robertson plays a drag-queen style baddy named Nessie. This could cement a new development in pantomime's evolution, especially as the Wicked Queen part in Snow White is now often played in this way thanks to Paul O'Grady being cast in the role ten years ago. Robertson's Scottish Nessie is delightfully evil and, as the pirates hunt for their treasure, she's on the hunt for her man, helped by an ancient curse which states that he who wants the treasure must wed her or die. Robertson dons some glorious lavish costumes, but often enters from Stage Right, which would upset any traditionalists in the audience immensely.
There's some sterling work done by Sarah Jane Honeywell in the lead role and Buster is a gravelly sounding Long John Silver. Some children were confused as to whether his Long John Silver was good or bad, and indeed, upon pondering this, it is never clear. As a pirate, stereotypes dictate that he is bad, but he's not the baddy and most of the story revolves around his search for treasure making him more like an Alderman Fitzwarren character to Michael Crawshaw's principal boy Horatio. When Buster asked the audience to look for an "X" under their chairs to help find the treasure, the little girl who found it almost burst into tears having been picked up by a pirate and brought to the stage to discuss her find with Silver himself.
Crawshaw makes an attractive Horatio in a costume reflecting his historic name. He has real chemistry with Honeywell's mermaid and it is a shame that their contribution to the show's narrative is merely a romantic subplot.
Phil Lawton's Elvis inspired non-crown wearing King Neptune leaves a lot to be desired. His performance is lacklustre and it is hard to believe that he is the all powerful ruler of the deep in a role built around stereotypes of the musical King himself and emulating the idea of the Pharaoh in Lloyd Webber's Joseph.
Narrative and character issues aside, the show's strength lies in its 3D technology, swashbuckling set and sumptuous costumes. It is a case of aesthetic superiority in this aquatic adventure, which makes it a visual feast to behold.
Playing until 3rd January 2010
Reviewer: Simon Sladen