THREE matinees this week are testament to the family appeal of Disney’s aquatic adventure The Little Mermaid, a show ideal for half-term week.
Across the city from February 16 to 18 at York Barbican, a Tylosaurus, the largest predatory marine reptile to ever grace our oceans and now the largest marine puppet ever made, will be making a big splash in a purpose-built tank in Jurassic Live. “If you sit near the front, you will get wet,” comes the safety alert.
No such warning is necessary at the Theatre Royal, but in the absence of water, everything else is thrown at director/choreographer Martyn Knight’s hi-tech production: an LED screen by AV Matrix; flying by Blue Chilli Flying; images and animations by Broadway Media Distribution and additional scenic elements by Scenic Projects, Lowestoft, and Curtain Call Productions, Crewe.
The tentacle costume for 6ft tall Pascha Turnbull’s evil sea witch, the giant squid Ursula, has been made specially by Caroline Guy, to go with a spectacular array of sea-world costumes by Spotlight Costume Hire and additional costumes created by York Light.
Wardrobe coordinator Carly Price has overseen a sewing team of ten, complemented by 21 dressers at the theatre; ten people in Ellie Ryder’s wig, hair and make-up team; ten more in the stage crew, all serving a cast of 43. Set building took 14 people; Paul Laidlaw conducts an excellent nine-strong orchestra, three of them on keyboards.
Those numbers tell you this is a big, expensive show to mount, taking on the challenge of staging a musical produced originally by Disney Theatrical Productions, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale and John Musker and Ron Clements’s animated 1989 film for Disney.
Built on a book by Doug Wright, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater, this is every inch a Disney show, in style, content and philosophy, but Knight’s cast still brings a York Light air to it too.
This is helped by the experienced presence of not only Turnbull’s terrific villain, Ursula, but also Neil Wood’s mandarin Grimsby, Martin Lay’s bird-brained Scuttle and in particular Rory Mulvihill’s stern King Triton, ruler of the underworld.
Turnbull’s Ursula and her henchmen with the flashing footwear, James Dickinson’s Flotsam and Adam Gill’s Jetsam, savour the dark side with more than a hint of pantomime villainy, and Turnbull’s rendition of Poor Unfortunate Souls is a formidable finale to Act One.
Jonny Holbek’s Caribbean crustacean, Sebastian the crab, carries the heaviest comedy load, and although painting a face red to deliver a calypso caricature in Under The Sea might not be on a par with a white actor blacking up as Othello in 2024, the Jamaican jive could sit awkwardly for those who cringed at Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Nevertheless, Holbek is such a personable presence on stage – witness his Dewey Finn lead turn in School Of Rock last November – that his Sebastian goes down well, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall in the style of a panto daft lad.
Under The Sea, by the way, is as big and bright and fun as the big ensemble number should be, while Monica Frost’s Ariel, the mermaid who makes a deal with Ursula to take on human form (at the cost of her voice), relishes her spotlight in Part Of Your World in a resolute lead performance.
Lay’s Scuttle and the Seagulls could not be more positive in Positoovity, danced to tap choreography by Rachel Whitehead, and if you want an actor to maximise a cameo with comic flair and French drama, step forward Zander Fick’s Chef Louis in Les Poissons in the palace kitchen.
Roller-skating is all the rage under the sea for Triton’s daughters (Frost’s Ariel, Annabel Van Griethuysen’s Aquata, Helen Miller’s Andrina, Madeleine Hicks’s Arista, Chloe Chapman’s Atina, Sophie Cunningham’s Adella and Sarah Craggs’s Allana), who swish hither and thither and sing siren-style.
James Horsman’s Prince Eric, the royal who would prefer to be a sailor, is played as straight as a ruler, fitting the Disney tropes of dark hair, slim frame and mono-focus on his one – find his bride – task in hand.
Ryan Addyman, who had everyone talking about his Jamie New in York Stage’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie Teen Edition last June, was promptly head-hunted to play Flounder, and he anything but flounders as Ariel’s fabulous fish sidekick here. One to watch, definitely.
Dial M for Mermaid if you enjoy Disney with a York Light touch, colours galore, fairytale fantasy, Turnbull terrors and Mulvihill regal authority
Performances: 7.30pm nightly, plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.