REVIEW: Unfortunate, The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday ****

Filthy mouthed and fabulously fiendish: Shawna Hamic’s Ursula with her underwater co-stars in Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

IN the introductory words of Robyn Grant & Daniel Foxx (book & lyrics) and Tim Gilvin (music), Ursula is “the baddest bitch in the ocean and the undisputed Queen of Villains. A businesswoman. Plus-size and proud. Her hair is big, her chutzpah bigger and yet her screentime is woefully small”.

Cue Unfortunate, her frank, fruity, fabulously rude riposte to Disney’s disservice to a devilish diva deserving of centre stage in The Little Mermaid, one allegedly inspired by Divine, the Baltimore actor, singer and drag queen, of Hairspray fame, but so much more so in The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch.

This is Ursula in “all her octo-glory”, as New York actress Shawna Hamic describes her, revelling in her British theatre debut, now on tour after a ten-week London run. Part gossipy narrator, part mistress of ceremonies, totally outré queen of the potty-mouthed putdown, her Ursula is as lippy as pre-TV fame Lily Savage or Terence Stamp’s Bernadette Basenger in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

Unfortunate was conceived one dark and stormy night in 2018 as Grant and Foxx discussed their favourite post-dinner topic: fabulous evil witches. In particular, Ursula. Brash, yes. Mean, a tad. But evil? Up for debate.

“Unapologetically fat, unapologetically loud and unapologetically hot; a caring mother to two gay eels and a connoisseur of the bold rep lip, Ursula is, if anything, a role model,” they contended.

River Medway’s Ariel and Shawna Hamic’s Ursula on the riverside in York

Leeds-born, East 15 Acting School-trained Grant always stood out as an original voice in her York theatrical performances, not least the Fat Rascal Theatre musicals she brought to the Theatre Royal Studio. One day, we may yet see her Mother Shipton show here, but who can predict when?!

By 2019, Grant was starring as Ursula in Unfortunate with six spindly whale bones and foam fish in a lecture theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, since when this fearless musical parody has grown and grown into this fully formed touring version with a cast twice size of the original. New songs too.

The show is in very rude health indeed, still true to its original principles of wanting its “comedy to feel transgressive and naughty, the references punchy and queer, and the staging ambitious”, in the way that Hair, The Rocky Horror Show, Rent and Spring Awakening were once pioneering too.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods and Stephen Schwartz & Winnie Holzman’s Wicked have re-told stories with imaginative, inventive, radical, tables-turned brio previously. Now Unfortunate does likewise with delicious irreverence and a raft of colourful sea-world characters, who put the naughty into nautical with waspish, combative dialogue and an exuberant Gilvin score that revels in drag, disco, pop and musical theatre tropes, as varied and impactful as Six!

Robyn Grant: Director and co-writer of Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

In a show that “celebrates the individual in a silly, joyful, beautifully chaotic explosion of fun and a chance to shine a light on those of us who didn’t make it to Disney”, not only Hamic’s “glorious  monstrosity” shines.

Under Ursula’s dark magic, and through the prism of a riotously queer musical, the bubble of Disney’s animated stereotypes is pricked, each protagonist breaking free in full force as Atlantica goes absurdist, whether RuPaul’s Drag Race star River Medway’s imeptuous mermaid Ariel, Thomas Lowe’s rebellious Triton, Allie Dart’s Sebastian and better still Chef Louis, James Mawson’s fickle Prince Eric or Julian Capolei’s anything-but-grim Grimsby.

Abby Clarke’s ship-shape set, costumes and puppet designs add to the joy, as do Melody Sinclair’s snappy choreography and Arlene McNaught’s exuberant band, all steered with glee and ribaldry by director Grant.

She was always one to watch, and what a joy to see her riding the crest of a wave with Unfortunate, a camp cruise of sex, sorcery and suckers where, unlike around Britain’s coastline, only the humour, not the sea, is filthy.

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: