Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

Book and lyrics by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx, music by Tim Gilvin
Laura Elmes for Wildpark Entertainment, Runaway Entertainment, The Vaults and Dianne Roberts
Grand Opera House, York

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Shawna Hamic (Ursula)
River Medway (Ariel), Julian Capolei, Shawna Hamic (Ursula) and Allie Dart
Shawna Hamic (Ursula) and Thomas Lowe (Triton)

Big, bold and brash, Ursula—the tentacled sea witch from The Little Mermaid (1989)—looms large in the pantheon of Disney villains. For me, she combines the urbane wit of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (1967) with the brooding malevolence of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959). And, of course, Ursula is a gay icon.

Famously inspired by the drag queen Divine—who collaborated with the cult director John Waters on a series of high-trash classics—Ursula has been embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community for her ferocious charisma, killer one-liners and iconic style (including what the character refers to as a “lesbian haircut”). Further evidence of her status can be found on YouTube, where you can see a range of queer performers, including Tituss Burgess, place their stamp on Ursula’s show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls”.

Conceived by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx (the writers of the book and lyrics) over a large glass of wine, Unfortunate offers a revisionist take on a well-loved (or well-loathed) villain, rewriting her as a misunderstood victim of circumstance—much like Elphaba in Wicked (2003) or Angelina Jolie’s freedom-fighting Maleficent.

In this version of the tale, Ursula (Shawna Hamic) is framed for a murder she didn’t commit when it looks like she’s about to marry Triton (Thomas Lowe), the future King of the Sea, resulting in her exile to the dark deeps of the seas. Moreover, her only motive in turning Ariel (River Midway) into a human is a desire to teach her a lesson about the fickleness of human males.

Unfortunate was originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 as an 80-minute show with minimal props and a small cast. Post-lockdown, the show has been reinvented as a full-scale musical extravaganza, combining drag, disco and pop in a Technicolor celebration of queer culture.

There is much to enjoy in this naughty and energetic show, which is definitely not for young viewers. Grant and Foxx’s treatment of the The Little Mermaid—which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year—displays a genuine affection for the original, whilst also sending it up mercilessly. An obvious example which springs to mind is the re-imagining of Ariel, the siren-voiced heroine of the film, as a horny airhead with less than dulcet tones.

It was never on the cards that Disney—a famously litigious organisation—would allow for “Poor Unfortunate Souls” to be performed in a parody production, but fragments of its swaggering tune are detectable throughout the show. Tim Gilvin’s score is exuberant and eclectic, and some of the songs manage to be both catchy and witty. A great example of this would be “We Didn’t Make It to Disney”, in which a group of hideous sea creatures, brought to life by puppetry, complain about the misfortune of not being photogenic.

Naturally, Unfortunate stands or falls on the basis of the performer who plays Ursula. Thankfully, Shawna Hamic—a stalwart of Broadway—is sensational. From the moment she steps onto the stage, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. Despite being more sympathetic than the film version, she still possesses the same element of danger.

Thomas Lowe gives a splendidly game performance as King Triton, portrayed in the first half of the show as a callow high school jock before his eventual ascension to the throne. His duet with Hamic, “Sucking on You”, is a particular delight, and demonstrates his talent for physical comedy.

River Medway is, of course, best known for their stint on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, but their hilarious performance as Ariel removes any doubt about why they were cast. They are matched by Jamie Mawson as an incredibly thick version of Prince Eric and Julian Capolei’s terrific multi-role performance, which includes a fierce, moustachioed version of Vanessa—the disguise adopted by Ursula to lure Eric away from Ariel.

Finally, Allie Dart is tremendous as Sebastian (performed here with an Irish accent) and a lesbian French chef. A kitchen scene in which she has to quickly switch between the two roles was one of the evening’s comic highlights.

The challenges of reimagining an animated film on stage—never mind one that is set largely underwater—are numerous, but they are imaginatively solved by Abby Clarke’s eye-catching costumes, which evoke a range of sea creatures, and some imaginatively designed puppets.

On a more critical note, Unfortunate is rather overstuffed at more than 150 minutes and would have benefited from a few cuts. Moreover, while the show’s high energy is mostly infectious, there are occasions where the onslaught of musical parodies and visual jokes becomes slightly wearing. It’s also worth pointing out that issues with the sound balance meant that some lyrics got lost.

Overall, however, I would describe Unfortunate as a huge success and probably one of the best new musicals I have seen in recent years.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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