Writer: Liam Sesay
Director: Scott Le Crass
Merboy, taking significant narrative inspiration from The Little Mermaid, has a lot of potential to be a success. The Disney property is hugely popular, particularly amongst LGBTQ+ audiences, so this queer retelling sounds like a dream; yet the end result is crowd-pleasing but not gag-worthy.
Liam Sesay’s script is written in verse throughout and frequently rhymes; an ambitious choice which can be clunky for expositional purposes, yet delightful for camp sequences such as meeting the Seawitch. An over-arching analogy is drawn between merboys and sailors representing the femme and masc queer archetypes respectively, which also offers a mixed result. Some acute moments of insight are extracted from the comparison, alongside entertaining parallels such as Merboy (a.k.a Ariel) ‘giving up’ his voice to be a sailor because mascs don’t like to talk about their feelings. Yet, this comparison also becomes cumbersome in the wider context of the plot.
In the titular role Kemi Clarke is charming and vulnerable, acting as a terrific emotional anchor for the show. He gives an electric performance which is standout; so much so that he appears more comfortable with movement and lip-syncing than the very drag queens who are supposed to be mentoring him.
Whilst their group work could use another layer of polish, each chorus performer does proves themself during their individual time to shine. For Ralph Bogard, this is a fabulous turn as the Seawitch which pays homage to some of Ursula’s most iconic quips while also making the role his own. Perhaps the real antagonist of the piece is Yasmin Dawes, giving a raw and heartfelt performance as a mother who can’t stop bitterly projecting her own insecurities onto Merboy. Finally, Anthony Psaila offers a surprisingly tender portrayal of the unavailable sailor of interest.
The production has a old-school vibe, suggestive of previous decades when queer culture was more underground. This is influenced by the 60s music choices, the retro feel of the stage design, and the references to blatantly prejudiced tabloid headlines about ‘the virus’. On one hand, this feels somewhat nostalgic and the older drag chorus guiding Merboy beautifully suggests the passing down of knowledge between the queer generations. However, this all becomes confused when occasional references to Lynx Africa and mega-musical Hamilton arise, which get laughs but disrupt the wider tone of the show.
Merboy is an entertaining production with a promising premise that could benefit from a little tightening up.
Runs until 4 March 2023