Mermaid whips up a storm: Shared Experience at the Watford Palace Theatre

Saturday 16th May 2015, evening

We’ve always said we’d go anywhere to see Shared Experience, but Watford? Only joking, we can definitely recommend the Palace Theatre Watford, although it’s a shame that it’s hemmed in by giant carparks on one side and a soulless ringroad on the other.  So much for traffic management!

It’s good to see Shared Experience back in action with a play written by Polly Teale that gives them full rein – a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’.  Staying close to the spirit of the original, Teale doesn’t shy away from the darkness in the story, but she also finds new meaning and an uplifting message.  Here we have a modern day narrator, a sixteen year old girl who is dissatisfied with her own life, wanting to be rich and popular.  She brings many modern touches to the story, with the addition of paparazzi and PTSD to the lives of the royal couple, but the essential story is the same.  A young mermaid, eager to see the world above the waves, decides to leave her idyllic life under the sea to strive to become human and gain a soul by being loved by the prince she has only seen from a distance.  She pays a high price, and success seems to slip from her grasp until our young narrator rescues the story in a new and fresh twist.

As soon as we walked in, we felt as if we were being transported to a seaside town, and we could almost smell the salt in the air.  Tom Piper’s design beautifully combines the real and surreal with a raised stage which serves both as dock and as the narrator’s bedroom, until it is gradually dismantled, first by the mermaids, and then by a shipwreck, in which the cast strip the stage of all civilisation, with just a wardrobe left hanging from the ceiling. The staging is full of invention, for example, when the mermaids swim upstream to the city, a river strewn with rubbish is a source of delight as they toss paper and plastic bags into the air as if they are floating.  It is hard to describe the effect in words – Teale and her company use visuals as a form of emotional language that taps directly into an intuitive world.

It takes a company like Shared Experience to put on a production like this, convincing us that we are in a mythical underwater world by sheer force of will. The mermaids emerge from under the raised stage, no fake mermaid tails here, but they suggest creatures that live in water by being in constant motion, generating an energy that is hypnotic, whether it’s mischief, joy or discontent. It’s not all innocent fun though – when they first encounter a shipwreck and drowning men, they are more curious than distressed, and in a brilliant piece of mime, they move the drowned man’s limbs and then let them float down again in the water, lifeless.  Their singing, which is said to cause storms is also beautiful but disturbing, supplemented by a choir of local women from the sides of the stage.

Sarah Twomey as the youngest mermaid gives a completely unaffected performance, with a bountiful supply of innocent wonder.  Her speechless joy at discovering her new legs as her Prince carries her back to the palace is infectious.  She’s no ‘little mermaid’ – she is full of big-hearted emotion and ambition, wanting to have a human soul and understand herself and others fully.  Twomey’s journey from innocence to emptiness is deeply touching. As the narrator Natalie Gavin weaves a very skilful web, whether watching her own creation from the sidelines, getting on with her own life, or entering the story herself. As a portrait of troubled adolescence with all its unmet potential, this is a subtle and engaging performance.  As the young prince, Finn Hanlon creates a sympathetic character – he doesn’t reject the mermaid, but is simply incapable of loving her, traumatised by his experiences in Afghanistan.  He can’t see what is in front of him, and yet never stops searching for an illusive peace of mind, and whilst he brings out the aristocratic and privileged hauteur of the young royal, his slightly pompous philosophical musings are heartfelt. It is impossible to talk about individual members of the cast without acknowledging the work of every single actor (Ritu Arya, Polly Frame, Miranda Letten, Steve North and Amaka Okafor) – all of them work together to reset the stage, create a huge number of characters, and keep the focus of the story moving on, and when only eight people came out to take a bow, it was hard to believe.

Shared Experience have proved yet again how powerful their approach is – they bring out the complexities and psychological nuances in a way that only theatre can (though sadly not all theatre does).  Our challenge is to try to do justice to an intensely emotional and visceral experience on paper.

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