“The Little Mermaid”, a ballet by David Nixon OBE with music by Sally Beamish, marks an always welcome return to The Festival Theatre Edinburgh Stage (Thursday 22 to Saturday 24 March) by Northern Ballet. Many younger people are probably more familiar with the 1989 Disney movie of this story, but its origins are far older, over 180 years old in fact, as Hans Christian Andersen’s at times dark fairy tale was first published in 1837.
How do you turn ballerinas into Mermaids without them looking like something out of the Cher movie “Mermaids”, or even worse, Bette Midler performing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” as a Mermaid? How do you create a believable underwater world on stage? Those are the two big questions that I had in my mind before coming to review this production, and the answer to both questions is innovative choreography and costume design from David Nixon, and very clever set and lighting (Kimie Nakano and Tim Mitchell) backed to a wonderful musical score by Sally Beamish performed live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia...and of course some outstanding dancers.
Marilla, a little mermaid - Abigail Prudames
Erina & Evelina, Marilla's sisters - Miki Akuta & Ailen Ramos Betancourt
Lyr, Lord of the Sea - Matthew Topliss
Dillion, a seahorse - Kevin Poeung
Prince Adair - Joseph Taylor
Dana - Dreda Blow
Brina- Pippa Moore
Performance roles are changing from night to night, but a full list (along with much more information on this and other productions) is available from the Northern Ballet website at https://northernballet.com/
At its heart, “The Little Mermaid” is a story of a young mermaid, Marilla, falling in love with a human, Prince Adair, when she sees his portrait in a locket that has fallen into the sea, then saving him from a ship-wrecked watery grave, willing to give up everything and everyone she knows for that love, but it comes at a terrible price. To gain her new form, Marilla drinks a potion given to her by Lyr (Matthew Topliss), Lord of the Sea, but must lose her voice, and every step that she takes in her new form causes her terrible pain. To add to her troubles, her “love” thinks that another woman, Dana, was the one that rescued him from the sea, and the owner of the beautiful voice that he remembers almost as a dream.
Our opening set was always going to be the most difficult one in many ways to re-create for an audience, but through some amazing choreography that creates an illusion of underwater movement, it creates a fantasy world for young and old to enter into. At times, there is an almost Japanese Kabuki design feel to the set and costumes (particularly Lyr). Abigail Prudames as Marilla spends most of her time in the opening set off the dance floor “floating” through the ocean, and that break with traditional ballet may not have been to everyone’s expectations. Some audience reactions that I heard at the interval were mixed, but the result was stunning. This first set is definitely one that will capture the imaginations of every child in the audience and perhaps give them a fixed reference point more familiar in some parts to the 1989 Disney movie, an innovative approach that is a perfect introduction for younger people into the possibilities of what ballet is capable of.
This story, although based on the classic fairy tale, draws its world from the old Celtic folk-lore of “The Selkies” and their bewitching songs luring distressed mariners onto rocky shores. With music, costumes and dance to reflect these traditional sources, we move at times into an alternative world of “Brigadoon”, but the merging of the two strands of these stories works amazingly well, and Joseph Taylor (Prince Adair) and Dreda Blow (Dana) are outstanding in their roles here. Giving the male dancers the freedom to move in stylised kilts is a nice innovative costume touch here.
Holding everything together though is of course Abigail Prudames as Marilla, The Little Mermaid, and on top of an incredible dance performance, we also get a truly emotional performance here as inspired choreography from David Nixon allows us to almost feel Marilla’s pain as she tries to adapt to her new form and her frustration and sorrow at the loss of her beautiful voice.
Swimming through our story in wonderful colour and costume is Dillion, a seahorse, and Kevin Poeung gives a magical performance here as this wonderful sea creature. Not forgetting of course Pippa Moore as Brina (Prince Adair’s mother) and everyone else in the cast.
Northern Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” is a performance work that draws its audience into a magical wonderland of fantastic characters, colour, sound and dance, and the only thing that is wrong with it is that only three performance days are far too short a time.
Review by Tom King