Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch – Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Book and Lyrics: Robyn Grant & Daniel Foxx

Music: Tim Gilvin

Directors: The Company

In Disney’s 1989 film, The Little Mermaid, Ursula the Sea Witch is, like most Disney villains, irretrievably, unconditionally, utterly evil. Her only drivers are an unspoken feud with King Triton, leading her to attempt to enslave his daughter, Ariel, and take over the kingdom of Atlantica. But what if Ursula wasn’t born bad? What if circumstances moulded her into the person she is now? And if this sounds a little bit like the take of Wicked on The Wizard of Oz, well, that’s maybe not the only place Fat Rascal Theatre have borrowed from in this frothy underwater tale. But that hardly matters, it’s so well done and such fun that one can sit back and enjoy eighty minutes of comedy spoof musical and maybe even go away with some rather weightier thoughts.

Fat Rascal has looked back in time before The Little Mermaid and used the device of a king (Neptune) seeking to marry off his son and heir (Triton). Suitors from the neighbouring kingdoms arrive, including Athena, a beautiful if vacuous princess, a sea cucumber, and a young and altogether more innocent Ursula. Triton falls in love with Ursula but Neptune deems that a bad match and turns Triton against her. Ursula is demonised and banished from Atlantica. Twenty years later and Triton’s daughter, Ariel, is 16 and uninterested in matters of state – she’s more interested in the world above and, especially, the men who inhabit it. In desperation, Triton turns to Ursula to help him. The story that unfolds has similarities to the film, but with a quite different context and with different outcomes too.

Along the way we’re treated to intelligent comic songs (who would imagine there were so many rhymes for ‘Atlantica’?) funny puppets, some representing the sea creatures too ugly for Disney, the whole being really entertaining if unsuitable for younger children. It also comments on some pretty weighty social issues, body image, consent and pollution being among them: the song Ask the Girl (loosely based on Kiss the Girl) is a clever take on the importance of consent.

The members of the ensemble cast take on multiple roles with the exception of Robyn Grant’s Ursula, resplendent in leather and with cleverly placed tentacles. Grant revels in the role, evoking such Hollywood stars as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn in her speech and manner. Her journey from naïve suitor to evil sea witch following her baseless expulsion is quite understandable and one finds oneself rooting for her: in their muddle-headed way, the other characters, by and large, are actually rather more unpleasant than she, it seems. Katie Wells is Athena and Ariel, both empty-headed and irritating. There’s some use here of stereotyping – Wells’ characters are pure TOWIE, but that’s of no consequence – her performance is exuberant and petulant in turn. Allie Munro brings us Sebastian, adviser to Triton and a voice of reason, as well as numerous puppets along the way. Jamie Mawson is suitably muscle headed as Eric while Steffan Rizzi is believable as Triton. Such is the skill of the ensemble cast that it comes as something of a surprise to realise they number only five.

Unfortunate is great fun and can be enjoyed on several levels, adding to its strength, and worth catching if the opportunity arises.

Runs until 22 December 2019 Image: Matt Cawrey

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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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