Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch – Oxford Playhouse

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book and Lyrics: Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx

Music: Tim Gilvin

Director: Robyn Grant

Having had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe and also the Southwark Playhouse, London, Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch embarks on a UK-wide tour. The story recounts the events from The Little Mermaid but from Ursula’s perspective, in much the same vein as Wicked. Unlike Wicked, however, this is very much an adult, drag-style show carrying an age rating of 16+.

Beginning with Ursula’s childhood, the show attempts to make us understand why the events of the movie played out as they did and we are left to question whether she really is the villain of the tale. It tells the story of how Ursula was framed, ostracised, and banished and how her plan to steal Ariel’s freedom was, in fact, teaching the young mermaid a necessary life lesson in self-respect and female independence.

Shawna Hamic is outrageously funny, gloriously camp, and utterly beautiful in the central role. Taking reference from other great musical characters in her design, namely Killer Queen, she struts with her purple mohawk and leather-clad outfit. Ursula is the only character that has been written with any dramatic gravitas and Hamic does a fabulous job of peeling back all of her layers.

The same can not be said for King Triton; the book by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx paints the picture of a weak and spoiled king, too cowardly and selfish to stand by his beliefs. Thomas Lowe’s Triton would not be out of place in Spongebob Squarepants. Thanks largely to Abby Clarke’s spangly spandex costume and heavy blue makeup, which is somewhere between Axel Rose and Mr Motivator, Lowe does a good job with the physical comedy that his costume creates. While his Triton is somewhat cartoonish, Lowe does have serious talent. His rock vocals are crisp and hammer home the comedy of every scene.

The onstage chemistry between Lowe and Hamic flits between cartoonish flirting and steaming sexual tension. Together they belt out rock ballad after rock ballad and they are quite the vocal powerhouse. Contrast with the young couple Ariel (River Medway) and Eric (Jamie Mawson) who take an altogether more Hanna Barbera approach to their stage time. From Medway’s inverted vocal riff to Mawson’s frantic slapstick delivery, their scenes give the show a boost of adrenaline. Medway is a fabulously dumbed-down version of Ariel. Singing desperately about her lust, she effortlessly captivates the audience as her character swings to grasp at various plot points and lands wide of the mark every time. The physical comedy on display during her voiceless period is second to none as Medway attempts to win the prince without words.

Weaving the whole show together is the ensemble cast with its beautifully articulated puppetry and seamless rapid character changes. Each cast member is a strong vocalist, bringing all of the sass and glamour associated with Ursula’s LGBTQ+ roots. While each performer is incredible, the two that stand out are Sebastian (Allie Dart) and Grimsby (Julian Capolei). Capolei and Dart furiously run in and out of scenes as multiple characters, often with several masked changes in the same scene; their speed and precision in doing so are truly spellbinding – none more so than Dart’s Chef vs. Crab scene and Capolei’s whole stint as Vanessa with Hot Girl Summer, effortlessly stealing the show.

The writing by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx is well structured, full of filthy and hilarious moments, innuendo, and puns. Quite panto-esque in tone, the show lovingly pays tribute to Disney’s The Little Mermaid as its source material. However, there are parts in the second act that lose pace ever so slightly, such as Triton at the graveyard.Unfortunate is highly sympathetic to the modern audience and calls out some of the more culturally questionable elements of the cartoon. For example, Sebastian no longer has a Jamaican accent and there is a question of consent as the classic song Kiss The Girl is reframed as Ask The Girl. Tim Gilvin has done a good job with the musical score referencing the source material in just the right quantity and mixing it with original songs. Female Role Models and We Never Made It To Disneyperformed by the ensemble are particular highlights. Whilst there are some catchy songs in this original score, one that is perhaps a little distasteful is the reworking of Part Of Your World which has been renamed, Where the Dicks Are and plays out in a fairly vulgar albeit comedic way.

This is Robyn Grant’s passion project and that passion shines through every tightly coiled scene. The production values of the show are incredible, Abby Clarke manages to encapsulate the wonder of Atlantica within her visually stunning and highly versatile set that consists of a sunken ship, flanked by two staircases and a pair of sliding doors in the centre. Her costume choices are bold, with lots of UV hats and ruffles on the electric eels and shimmering tulle on the merfolk, while keeping Ursula and Ariel very true to the 1991 cartoon. Coupled with Adam King’s flashy lighting design, the costumes pop, adding sparkle to every scene. King has done an excellent job mixing saturated purples, working with neons, and playing with the movement of the beams to create the underwater atmosphere. The ending is somewhat true to the cartoon culminating in an extremely striking shadow projection, showing Ursula in her giant form. King’s lighting truly sells these climactic moments.

This is a well-put-together show. It is manically paced and over the top, relishing in its own silliness. A highly entertaining evening, catch it before it swims out of town.

Runs until 27 April 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Fabulously funny

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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