How Unfortunate became good news for The Little Mermaid’s villainous Ursula, Robyn Grant and Shawna Hamic

Shawna Hamic, centre, in all her “octo-glory” as Ursula, the sea witch, in Unfortunate: The Untold Story Of Ursula The Sea Witch. Picture: Pamela Raith

IN the wake of a ten-week London run and the York Pride celebrations, the musical parody Unfortunate: The Untold Story Of Ursula The Sea Witch arrives at the Grand Opera House, York, next week with its queer queen tales of sex, sorcery and suckers.

Co-written and directed by Leeds-born Robyn Grant, who cut her teeth on the York musical theatre scene, this rude, riotous riposte to Walt Disney’s 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid revels in the lead performance of Broadway actress Shawna Hamic, playing opposite RuPaul’s Drag Race UK star River Medway’s Ariel.

Combining the “trademark filthy humour” of Grant and Daniel Foxx’s script with an original hot pop soundtrack, arrangements and orchestrations by Tim Gilvin, Unfortunate finds Disney diva Ursula giving her take on what really happened all those years ago under the sea.

Six Off West End Theatre Award nominations have come the way of Unfortunate.  “If you hate it, it’s all my fault,” jokes writer-director Robyn Grant of her 2019 creation.

“I began making my own work after training as an actor at East 15 Acting School, where I started exploring writing and directing and wrote my first show, Buzz: A Musical History of the Vibrator in my second year.”

She toured with her company Fat Rascal Theatre. “We brought small-scale musicals to York Theatre Royal Studio, including a gender-swap Beauty And The Beast,” she recalls. “We liked doing parodies and flipping things, and off the back of that, we started thinking about Ursula. Even though the film came out in 1989, she’s very much part of culture.

“You can still buy Ursula pyjamas at Primark, and she’s become a queer icon. She’s one of the only female Disney villains. She’s plus size, naughty and sexy and very unapologetic about it, but she didn’t have much screen time so we decided to fix that!”

Unfortunate writer-director Robyn Grant

Unfortunate first emerged at the Underbelly at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe. “I played Ursula in that version, starting out at an hour-long. We were astonished that the run  sold out pretty early on, with this recognisable character really catching on,” Robyn says.

Gradually, the show has expanded from a cast of five to ten for the Southwark Playhouse run and five-month tour, while the running time is now 70 minutes for the first half, 65 for the second. The set is bigger too.

“In terms of a model for how to grow a British musical theatre show, not everyone has a Cameron Mackintosh or the RSC to support them, so we’re incredibly proud to hit this scale.

“The Birmingham Hippodrome has been very supportive, and we’ve been very lucky to have a commercial producer, Runaway Entertainment, producer of 2:22 A Ghost Story, who’ve come on board along with lots of angels backing us, who’ll hopefully get their money back and more.”

To cast Ursula this time, “I think I saw every fantastic-sized woman in the world,” says Robyn. “I first met Shawna on Zoom.  She was fabulous, crawling all over the camera! She was filthy, funny, such a laugh. She was extraordinary.

“I immediately said, to my producers’ horror, ‘we need to bring this woman over from America’, but thankfully they said ‘yes’ and she’s been absolutely worth it.

“The show has massively grown, and the way it’s grown so huge means we’re about to release a cast album led by Shawna, available on all streaming platforms. We’ve had people seeing the show multiple times, following it around, and we now have a global audience, excited at the possibility of doing the show. We’re being asked to take it to America, where we’re in negotiation to go there over the next two years.”

“I work on it every night, always trying to find a better and different way of doing the comedy,” says Unfortunate star Shawna Hamic

You will note that Disney is not mentioned in the show title. “Because it’s a parody musical we’re protected by those laws, so we’re able to jab at how they present princesses, the role of women in their movies, the representation of women in relationships, especially in The Little Mermaid,” says Robyn, who had “the absolute most fun making this glorious monstrosity”.

In that role, New York City actress Shawna Hamic is enjoying her British travels – “everywhere I go is like a new home, so that’s exciting,” she says – on the back of her London stage debut.

“When the producers contacted my agents to see if I’d be willing to do it, because Ursula is one of my favourite animated characters I leapt at it. It took a couple of months to process the visa, which was dependant on government approval to say I had enough credits to justify me taking the role, rather than a British actor.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity. It was always something I’d wanted to do, thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing for a show to bring me over’, rather than me just coming over.”

Shawna feels a “great responsibility” in playing Ursula. “That’s because of all the work that’s gone before, with Robyn, Daniel and Tim putting their heart and soul into it,” she says. “But I also want to put my own stamp on it. I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t think I could bring something to it.

“It’s been fun, and maybe I’ve even surprised Robyn by saying ‘I know you wrote it and starred in it, but how about doing it this way?’. I work on it every night, always trying to find a better and different way of doing the comedy, because otherwise it becomes stagnant – and I don’t want.”

Unfortunate: The Untold Story Of Ursula The Sea Witch, Grand Opera House, York, June 11 to 15, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Age guidance: 16+. Why? Contains strong language, partial nudity, scenes of a sexual nature and flashing lights.

Copyright of The Press, York.