Review by Daz Gale
Who doesn’t love a bit of Disney at Christmas? Particularly a story about a classic villain full of four letter words and sexual innuendo. If that doesn’t say “Stuff me like a Christmas turkey”, I don’t know what does. That is what you will find if you visit Southwark Playhouse Elephant this Christmas as Ursula from The Little Mermaid gets to tell her own side of the story in Unfortunate: The Untold Story Of Ursula the Sea Witch. Having caught a previous production of the show last year, I was keen to see how it progressed and jumped at another chance to be part of its world, but having been tweaked since I last saw it, would it have finally found its voice?
Having enjoyed previous sell-out runs in Edinburgh and London, Unfortunate is back for its biggest version yet, playing a season at Southwark Playhouse Elephant ahead of a UK tour next year. The story recounts the events from The Little Mermaid but from Ursula’s perspective, much in the same vein as Wicked. Beginning with her childhood, the show attempts to make us understand why the events of the movie played out and if she really is the villain after all… with a lot of humour thrown in for good measure.
The writing by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx is continually impressive, full of filthy and hilarious moments, innuendo, puns and generally humorous dialogue. Quite panto-esque in tone, only with more of a plot to move forward. Like Wicked before it, the way this musical attempts to shift the narrative even when sympathising with a murderer is admirable, with that other musical getting a few nods of its own.
In regards to how Unfortunate plays against The Little Mermaid, the show lovingly pays tribute to elements of it, while calling out some of the more problematic moments. Sebastian the crab no longer has a Jamaican accent as they question how appropriate that would be, while the classic song from the movie 'Kiss The Girl' now focuses more on consent, renamed to 'Ask The Girl' - elements I'm sure will enrage GB News viewers. The themes that are prominent throughout the show deceptively hide more serious messages amidst all the fun and frivolity.
The music by Tim Gilvin is one of the most enjoyable elements of Unfortunate. With Robyn and Daniel's lyrics, it features a rousing highlight in the form of 'Female Role Models', expertly performed by Ursula herself (Shawna Hamic), ‘Hot Girl Summer’ is as ridiculous as you might expect but brilliantly so while ‘We Didn’t Make It To Disney’ screams musical parody revue – slightly rough around the edges but that was part of its charm. The most memorable musical number is a new take on one of Disney’s greatest numbers ‘Part Of That World’. Like the original, Ariel imagines what life might be like out of the water, only this time it is titled ‘Where The Dicks Are’ – I’m sure you can imagine what the lyrics might be like with that title.
Orange Is The New Black star Shawna Hamic takes on the iconic role of Ursula in a fabulously camp and commanding performance. Dominating proceedings, she gives the gays everything they want with a sensational turn, displaying excellent comic timing and a fantastic singing voice, culminating in the undoubted banger that is the final number ‘I’m That Witch’. Thomas Lowe is a standout in the cast as Triton, particularly with what may just be the vocal performance of the show in the rousing ‘To Be King’.
RuPaul’s Drag Race star River Medway is a delight as Ariel. Think if The Little Mermaid was a cast member on The Only Way Is Essex and you get the idea. While she might not have the strongest vocals in the world, she more than makes up for it with charm, giving a loveable and fishy performance. Allie Dart impresses with her dual roles including Sebastian, particularly in one fantastic scene which requires her to be both characters simultaneously. Jamie Mawson is a comic highlight as the dopey Prince Eric and Julian Capolei shines in a number of several small but scene-stealing roles.
Robyn Grant’s playful direction amplifies the writing with a great use of the space, thanks to Abby Clarke’s glorious set design. Melody Sinclair’s choreography is always fun to watch, along with Adam King’s lighting, creating a show that is always a joy to watch visually. Sadly, the evening I went was dogged with sound problems with several characters being lost in the mix, meaning certain lines and punchlines fell completely flat. While that is hopefully just applicable to the performance I went to, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show slightly, though thankfully there was more than enough going right to counter that little issue.
Unfortunate has been worked on for a few years now, growing in size to now coming in at a whopping 2 hours 40 minutes (including interval). Where more material has been added, this hasn’t detracted with the short but snappy original, instead fleshing out the story to create a more well-rounded and complete show. With witty writing and fun direction, there is much to love about this show which provides a great alternative to pantomime this season, while still retaining elements of that style. Perhaps not one to bring the kids to unfortunately (unless you want to explain what several four letter words mean) but this filthy, fun and fabulous show is perfect for all of us big kids.
Unfortunate – The Untold Story Of Ursula The Sea Witch plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 17th February 2024. It then embarks on a UK tour until 14th July. Full dates and tickets at https://unfortunatemusical.com/
Photos by Pamela Raith