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Review – Unfortunate (UK Tour) – Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

MANY academics and fairytale aficionados will tell you that Hans Christian Andersen penned The Little Mermaid in a sort of catharsis over an unrequited attraction to the son of one of his patrons. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Disney Studios vented their homophobic 1980s spleen by filling the animated movie with thinly veiled brickbats aimed squarely at the LGBTQ+ community, in particular taking ‘Divine’ inspiration for the villainous Ursula.

Unfortunate, the Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, is a musical that gleefully lampoons the Disney version of events, reinventing Ursula by giving her a backstory that is queer in more ways than one, and not only excuses her peculiar treatment of Ariel but shows that, if anything, she was being kind rather than cruel.

With a book and lyrics by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx and music by Tim Gilvin, this anarchic, subversive and unashamedly potty-mouthed show has grown from humble beginnings at the Edinburgh Fringe to a glossy touring production which is almost certain to find itself embarking on a lengthy West End run before long.

The ensemble cast includes some stonking individual performances which surround Shawna Hamic’s tour-de-force as Ursula. The Orange is the New Black star delivers powerhouse vocals to match her commanding stage presence, but she isn’t the only one to inject high octane showbiz fuel into their character. Thomas Lowe’s unsettlingly homoerotic Triton could give Ryan Gosling’s Ken a run for his money, and Jamie Mawson and Allie Dart as Eric and Sebastian never take their foot off the comedic accelerator pedal.

For my money though it has to be River Medway who takes the prize for funny-bone tickling here, and from the moment that she sings Ariel’s big first act number ‘Where the Dicks Are’ the gloves are well and truly off.

The show is billed as a musical parody, and director Robyn Grant has gone all out to emphasise this in every possible way. The show is a visual treat, with extravagant costumes, set and puppet designs from Abby Clark, and lighting that really does immerse us in a briny deep. Here we drown in a sea of innuendo, surrounded by as much filth as the actual ocean could accumulate – and I mean this in a positive way.

On the subject of parody, Gilvin’s music is little short of genius. While obviously sending up the syrupy excesses of the Disney sound, there are forays into every corner of the wide and eclectic musical theatre genre, with nods to everyone from Stephen Schwartz to Claude-Michel Schönberg. If you weren’t so focused on following the narrative you could easily play a game of composer bingo listening to the score.

On opening night at the Playhouse there appeared to be a slight issue with sound balance, rendering some of the earlier vocals inaudible through over amplification, but this was redressed fairly swiftly and I am sure that it can be attributed to the touring sound team acclimatising to another first night in another venue. By the time we reached the main substance of the story every word was clear – something pretty much essential in a show that hangs so much on snappy writing.

With a cast having as much obvious fun with their material as this, it is hard to imagine how swiftly the show has grown from its origins into something so big and glitzy, and if the first half remains a little baggy in places it is clear that it is destined to continue growing and sharpening its act as it continues the run.

This is a show that is destined to become something of a legend, and if you like your theatre loud, proud and irreverent then this is definitely one to see. But don’t be fooled by the fairytale associations in the title – Disney it ain’t and the 16+ age advisory is there for a reason, so leave the kids at home.

Star rating: 4 stars
Review by Nigel Smith

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