THE LITTLE MERMAID – The Pantomime 2021
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music arranged and directed by Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreography by Natasha McAllister and Jthan Morgan
Set and Projection design by Anna Lineham Robinson
Lighting Design by Marcus McShane
Costume Design by Sheila Horton
Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St.,Wellington
Wednesday, 17th November, 2021
Until 23rd December, 2021
My first thought upon hearing about the projected scenario for this year’s Circa Pantomime was surprise that a story with grim and murderous elements (Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”) had been chosen – not having seen or even registered the Disney film adaptation of the story I wasn’t aware that the inevitable process of sanitisation of this story had already begun, as had previously happened to countless other folk- and fantasy-tales adapted for children over the years.
With the prospect of a remake by Disney of the story due for release in 2023 it would seem that “The Little Mermaid” has joined the select “classic fantasy tale” group, duly reinforced, of course, by pantomimic treatment, as witness Circa’s energetic and highly recreative adaptation of the story.
My second thought, independent of the above, was stimulated at the theatre itself upon my reading director Susan Wilson’s paean of praise (thoroughly well-deserved, incidentally) in the programme for all the people, past and present, who have contributed their talents and energies to the Circa Pantomimes for the previous 17 seasons, more-than-usually laudatory – was this some kind of valedictory address on the director’s part? Time will, of course, tell, but even the most successful theatrical undertakings, by dint of their nature, don’t last forever and needs must undergo refurbishment of some kind.
I was thinking particularly of Gavin Rutherford’s superb series of “Dames” which we’ve enjoyed over the years, and which delivered yet again this time round with just as much bristling energy and droll insouciance as his character needed, his “Shelly Bay” persona a brilliant throwback in itself to a time when the world was younger and less “submerged” with troubles, Rutherford’s capacities for drollery here seemingly inexhaustible!
Of course, this was, both onstage and off, an ensemble effort – and Rutherford’s charismatic “Shelly Bay” was more than amply matched by the tale’s “movers and shakers”, both institutional and everyday – Simon Leary’s King Lando, the ex-restauranter-cum-ruler of the largely-submerged 3021 version of Wellington, one whose on-the-spot land speculations have secured him power and influence over what is now left of the eastern “Heights”, posed a credible romantic attraction for the “poor fisher woman” Shelly Bay, when allied to a past association the pair had that Lando was now doing his best to escape from! He had as well, a kind of “alter ego”, a puppet stingray called “Death Shadow, one that flitted voraciously in-and-out between the hapless characters that crossed his path.
King Lando’s rival on all counts came in the form of Kathleen Burns’ wonderfully-vampish Bermuda, the Sea-Witch, a stunning portrayal enhanced by an octopus-tentacled costume whose every movement riveted the attention! Bermuda’s more-than-apparent nastiness was mitigated by her disdain for humankind and the havoc wrought upon the natural world by its representatives, her theatrical vow to “rid the world of humans” a kind of perverse “corrective” to Lando’s self-serving power-grab.
Equally spectacular in a more benign context was Jthan Morgan’s Queen Neptuna, a tragic, subaqueous “Queen of the Night” kind of figure (and similarly bewailing the loss of a daughter), looking and sounding the part as if to the manner born! It was a tour-de-force performance by Morgan, as he had to switch roles occasionally to being King Lando’s Public Relations agent “Shaggy” (and put up with the inevitable barrage of innuendo!) – Morgan’s extra distinction was his “Shaggy” character’s adeptness with sign language, which certainly resonated with everybody, in the wake of the last couple of years’ Covid updates!
The younger generation was represented by Natasha McAllister in the title role, as Queen Neptuna’s daughter Coral, charming us from the outset with her singing voice, which of course she has to later relinquish so her fins and tail can be changed into legs after she falls in love with a human – who happens to be a boy called Lyall, who happens to be the son of Shelly, thus further extending the show’s vistas when looking back at a world lost to the rapacious exigencies of climate change.
Lyall was here played by Jake McKay, who to his credit seemed remarkably “boy-next-door-like” considering his mother Shelly had at various times told him he was “special”, being an “immaculate conception”. Apart from each having similarly patronymic-like names, McAlister and McKay seemed ideally suited for their roles – a happy stage partnership! Finally, there was Trae te Wiki’s portrayal of Crabby, the hermit crab who’s Coral’s best friend, and who’s the “ordinary, everyday” personality, the “Everyman” of the drama, who comes across as warm-hearted and faithful, and very much the victim of circumstances -most endearingly she adapts as best she can to life’s changing situations, winning our sympathies in the process.
My third thought (or is it my fourth?), having introduced and summarised the individual personas and characteristics of the show’s dramatis personae, is a reiteration of my amazement and appreciation of the sheer raw energy this cast puts into the performance (a quality also remarked on by my companion for the occasion, herself a “performance artist”, and as such directly appreciative of the levels of high-octane output generated by all concerned – whether emoting, singing or dancing (or all three at once), the output was almost tangible in its crackling voltage.
This quality was never more never more apparent than during the production’s songs (the actors supported to the hilt by their inexhaustible Music Director Michael Nicholas Williams via his arrangements and on-the-spot accompaniments), Natasha McAllister’s voice soaring at the beginning, resonating in the memory during her “mute” period (displaying her new-found sign-language skills as the rest of the cast sang “You Can Count on Me”), and gloriously restored for the rousing finale. McAllister’s and Jthan Morgan’s inspired choreography throughout gave the songs extra “punch”, Sheila Horton’s colourful and apposite costumes also contributing to the flow of body, texture and colour (as I write this I can still see Kathleen Burns’ Bermuda and her witchety tentacles!), and the whole was mellifluously (and sometimes startlingly) illuminated by Marchs McShane’s lighting, adding even further dimensions to Anna Lineham Robinson’s environmentally dystopian sets, evoking a futuristic world we’d probably rather not try to imagine…….
On the strength of what her “support team” of actors and technicians generated through their efforts, director Susan Wilson had every right and cause to thus “stop and reflect” for us on the achievement of this and past pantomime productions, and, of course, revel in the deserved satisfaction of knitting all these strands together to memorable effect.