MusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch – Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Book and Lyrics: Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx

Music: Tim Gilvin

Director: Robyn Grant

The concept of telling a well-known story from the perspective of the villain is not a new one, and the recent surge in this trend can almost certainly be traced back to when the musical Wicked took the world by storm in 2003. This, of course, looked at L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the side of the Wicked Witch of the West and posited that even if people seem to act heinously, it may be for good reason.

Unfortunate is resolutely based on Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid (1989) and its antagonist Ursula the sea witch. However Unfortunate is also resolutely emphasised as parody (i.e. not authorised so please don’t sue us Disney). This approach is not unprecedented and this show clearly owes as much to 2013’s Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier (a similarly unauthorised take on Disney’s Aladdin from the perspective of villain Jafar, and legitimately available to view in full on YouTube) as it does to the animated movie or Hans Christian Anderson’s original text.

Touring after appearing at Edinburgh Fringe, Unfortunate is a Fat Rascal Theatre production: a company known for edgy content. Almost from the off, it is very clear than this version of the classic fairy tale is not suitable for the small fry. Strong language and very adult humour proliferate and, while much of this is often a source of cheap laughs as we hear Disney characters swearing and talking about all manner of bodily functions, occasionally the jokes do land, and the overall vibe is one of a slightly raucous nightclub act mixed with a pantomime.

The story basically re-treads what we are already familiar with from the film, except Ursula’s spell to turn Ariel human is a plan hatched by her and Ariel’s father Triton to illustrate to the little mermaid just how terrible humans are. Whenever the story sticks closely to the Disney version, the humour generally uses the source material as a crutch as opposed to a springboard. However, there are flashes of a much more interesting story whenever we are exposed to the “untold” parts of the tale such as Ursula’s backstory, her sexual attitudes, her hidden relationship with Triton, or his conflicts with his own father. Unfortunately all of these are left relatively under developed, whereas it is here that the writers should have perhaps cast their nets wider. While the script remains mostly amusing and engaging, it also seems like it had the potential to be so much more.

The cast of only five are mostly superb, with four of them playing multiple roles, often in very quick succession. George Whitty displays very strong vocals as Triton/Scuttle and Allie Dart works extremely hard and displays amazing versatility and energy as she juggles Sebastian, Grimsby, Flotsam and Vanessa, Ursula’s sexually aggressive human form. The biggest laughs come from Miracle Chance’s Ariel and Jamie Mawson’s Prince Eric: her, a vacuous Essex girl, him, an outrageous fop. Ironically considering Ursula stole the show in Ariel’s movie, Ariel and her prince steal the show in Ursula’s musical.

The central role of Ursula has recently been taken over by co-writer and director Robyn Grant. Grant displays great stage presence and confidence in the role. Ursula has become quite an icon in some circles and, while the show puts her front and centre, Grant doesn’t quite fully embody the role. A large part of this problem is that her diction and speed of delivery mean that too many of her lines are indecipherable. In fact, the biggest issue with the entire show is sound balance and diction. Grant’s and Daniel Foxx’s script and lyrics are often witty, when they can be understood, but frustratingly large chunks of script and sometimes the lyrics to entire songs can only be partially made out, delivering a real disservice to what could be an otherwise much more entertaining experience.

The sound issues are especially unfortunate when the show looks as good as it does. Abby Clarke’s set is simple but effective, Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting is spectacular, and Cory Shipp’s costumes are as good (if not in many cases better) than those from Disney’s own misconceived Broadway stage version of The Little Mermaid from 2007. Special mention must go to Abby Clarke and Hugh Purves’s puppet designs which are wonderful, even if the performers often seem like they could have done with more training on how to use them.

Unfortunate sits in an unfortunate place as a project that just misses greatness. With a braver script, better sound, and stronger direction, this has potential to break free of its Fringe-y roots. As it is, it feels like it’s just an “also swam”.

Runs until 24th September 2022, before continuing on tour.

The Reviews Hub Score

Fun but flounders

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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