Mermaids – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer: Joanne Sherryden

Director: Siobhan James-Elliott

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Being yourself seems like it should be really simple, but of course it isn’t. We are surrounded by pressures to look, sound, feel a certain way and even the most outwardly confident or stylish people are equally filled with self-doubt and fear on the inside. Joanna Sherryden’s new play Mermaids explores the pain of being yourself when it seems no one else is like you, and who among your equally misfit friends you can rely on.

Arriving unannounced one day, soldier Danny needs to tell Lia that their father has died but cannot quite accept that the brother he once knew wants to live as a woman. Suffering from PTSD as a result of serving in Afghanistan, Danny becomes dependent on drink, while Lia struggles to accept the constant looks and whispers as she decides whether to have the final surgery. Meanwhile Lia and best friend Carly – a single mum of three – have been invited to their school reunion where they want to project their best selves.

Sherryden’s 65-minute play told across nine scenes is a sweet if dramatically wobbly tale of acceptance. While all storylines focus on Lia and her difficult relationship with friends and family, it also places the individual experience in the context of other, perhaps no less difficult, paths to being yourself. Sherryden utilises a duel approach, focusing both on Lia and Danny’s experience to unpick the consequences of Lia’s decision to change gender and its ramifications for the wider family.

Some of Mermaids most interesting scenes are in discussion about the price of taking a decisive step in a conservative community, which for her brother, forces him to win their father’s approval as a substitute for Lia’s very different approach. While you absolutely identify with Lia’s right to make that choice, Sherryden offers a fairly even-handed approach, which from Danny’s perspective was something done tohim and had wider consequences for the whole family.

But, Mermaidshasn’t got a firm hold on its narrative threads and from one scene to the next it’s not clear where the play is heading or what is driving the plot forward, particularly as its attention swings back and forth between Danny and Lia. At times the text is rather clunky as dialogue becomes almost preachy, as though the actors were reading from a textbook about trauma rather than having the tone of natural speech, while at others slightly overlong silences give the show an improvised feel.

Jo Eaton-Kent’s Lia is an interesting mix of her past and present, attached to childhood memories but certain of her current life choices. Lia is likeably defiant but with a softer underside that emphasises the pain of a casual remark. Ray James as Danny does an impressive job with some slightly mannered dialogue, implying a deeply broken young man struggling to articulate the cause of his own pain but learning to accept his sister for herself. Finally, friend Carly, played by Carrie Rock, has the most natural stage presence, the kind of enduring friend you’d hope the siblings would find, as well as all the best sarcastic lines such as “the only thing I ever passed was a smear test.”

The play’s title drawn from Ariel’s ability to pursue her dreams regardless of what anyone else thinks in The Little Mermaid, suits the amorphous creatures all three characters feel they are, not quite the same as everyone else. Although it needs a bit more shaping, Sherryden’s overriding message is a positive one, that being yourself is the only thing that matters.

Runs until  6 July 2018 | Image: Andy McCredie. 

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