Review by Sam Waite
The fairytales written by the likes of Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers could be, and have been by greater minds than my own, easily related to the experience of growing up as anything outside of the prescribed “norm”. The Little Mermaid, in which the titular character sacrifices everything she's ever known to pursue a life she feels might better suit her, can easily be linked to growing up idealising the people who just seem to fit in. In Merboy, now playing at the Omnibus Theatre, another titular misfit explores the possibilities of a life seemingly easier to live than his own.
Using some of the original tale’s most notable elements – a feeling of otherness; a loss of voice, here metaphorical; undergoing a change upon first love – Merboy finds the otherwise unnamed hero first as a young, confused boy. The youngest of five brothers, he realises at age 4 just how different he is from the others, finding solace only in an imagined group of Sirens, inspired by his mother's Supremes and Shangri-Las records. As a teenager he ventures into the deep waters, a gay disco, and falls head over heels with a handsome sailor – from then on, he knows he wants to be part of that world.
Sailors, like merboys, are a metaphor rather than their honest occupation. Merboys are unlike those around them on land but are forbidden from swimming, whereas the sailors blend in comfortably on land and at sea. You can interpret the sea as being the queer community, its array of safe spaces, or even acceptance of one's own lifestyle – regardless, it's something Merboy longs for. The Witch helps him to venture into the water, perhaps teaching him how to behave less flamboyantly when called for or maybe just introducing him to the club scene. As we know, the move from one world to another is not as smooth as the hero may hope.
A trio of performers act as a Greek chorus (Greek Cho-Rus!) of sorts, narrating alongside the Merboy himself, while also covering the other roles within the story. The SeaWitch is covered by Ralph Bogard with genuine gusto and an air of flirtatiousness which clues us in early to the lecherous nature of her enchantment. Anthony Psaila’s most prominent role is as the Sailor, playing a convincing drunk upon his introduction and equally believable as a man who is cheating because he can't bring himself to return to singledom. The trio is rounded out by Yasmin Davis, a fierce diva in the group’s drag numbers and a genuinely worried but hurtful and unaccepting presence as Merboy’s Mother.
Despite the talent on show from these actors – performing in and out of drag, helping to both tell and present the story, and giving both lip-synced and sung renditions of retro hits – the star of the evening is Merboy himself, Kemi Clarke. Giving a continuous performance throughout the 80-minute piece, even Clarke’s on-stage costume changes are part of the role, and his facial expressions and body language are engaging throughout. Moving gracefully from a small child through his teenage years and early adulthood, Clarke’s vocal mannerisms and physicality shift gradually as the story progresses, with the voice deepening and the movements more confident. He lives a life before our eyes and exits as a fully-formed man.
Director Scott Le Crass and Movement Director Carl Harrison’s work is seamless in tandem, the choice of movement perfectly matching the point of the performance where it is placed. Between them, the performances have been moulded into their best possible versions, with every gesture and pause in the dialogue serving a purpose. The seemingly simple lighting (by Joe Price), sound (Dina Mullen) and set design (Ica Niemz) prove to be strengths to this collaborative production – no element is trying to divert your attention or steal the show, but they are all working to compliment one another and keep us engaged in the world and story we are being drawn into.
Scripted by Liam Sesay, his writing flows as both spoken dialogue and recited poetry and feels so deeply felt and lived in that it's hard to imagine how difficult it must be to release the work into someone else’s hands. Merboy feels so fully formed because his creator clearly has a thorough and richly explored understanding of the circumstances that brought him to this story’s opening. Sesay’s writing is mesmerising, and his exploration of modern queerness is profoundly moving.
A celebration of coming into your own skin, no matter how different it might be from the skin you felt you ought to have, and finding pride in your identity, Merboy is a powerful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking play which clearly resonated with its largely queer audience. Cult fandom seems likely for such a richly layered and smartly adapted fairytale, and is entirely deserved thanks to the stellar collaboration between the talented cast and creative team.
Merboy plays at the Omnibus Theatre until March 4th.
Tickets available at: https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/merboy
Photos by Claire Bilyard