The opening of The Little Mermaid looks very promising indeed. While a piano plays a gentle and contemplative tune, sculptural forms swathed in dustsheets form a tableau under swirling, spotlit smoke. As the performance starts, each monolith is unveiled by an ageing Hans Christian Andersen (played wonderfully by James Earl Adair), to reveal a cellist in a seaweed-green skirt, a mermaid (complete with purple ringlets) at a harp, a seated guitarist and a standing clarinettist. Three stories gradually come into being: the story of Hans Christian Andersen's reflections on his long life, the story of The Little Mermaid, and the story of Hans' youth. But the latter two stories are in fact not quite so separate as we might have assumed.
It's an interesting evening, in which I learnt more about Hans Christian Andersen than I had known. Using excerpts from Andersen's own letters and diaries, as well as those of his friends and contemporaries, Blind Tiger have created something between a documentary, a biography, and a commentary on The Little Mermaid and its author (played brilliantly by Anthony Pinnick), who turns out to have been a tortured soul, gauche and awkward, full of turbulent passions which threatened even his closest friendships, and so maladjusted that he was certainly happier writing alone than being in company. His ardent, obsessive friendships fascinated and repelled those around him; very few could see past the smothering handshake and the nervous clinginess. But those who could – like his almost-brother Edvard Collin (played with restraint and intelligence by Stu Collin) – saw someone who, though difficult at times to stay friends with, was a profoundly sweet and generous man.
The company of six multi-talented performers play various parts throughout the production, and their wide array of instrumental talents are a constant delight. All the music we hear is created by these performers, figuratively as well as literally: the music is credited simply to Blind Tiger as a whole, and the score is only partly fixed in advance of each performance. Mainly, the cast are extemporising their parts live each night. So, the instrumentation is impressive. The singing didn't quite match up. Only one song, a whisky-laden sea shanty, really got my feet tapping, and there's much more talking than singing. The only performance which really transported me to the West End was Erla Brynjarsdottir's magnificent portrayal of the Sea Witch, simmering with evil and gleeful mischief.
The costumes (designed by Faye Shortall) are very clever, as they allow the company to adapt smoothly from one character to the next. The staging is simple and modern - almost too simple. There is a marked contrast between the rhapsodic beauty of Andersen's words and the very plain setting (excepting Claire Sharpe, resplendent as our Little Mermaid in seaweed-printed body stocking, pretty makeup and purple tresses); this is a modern convention which we've all seen before, but as a child I would have liked a little more glitter on stage. We move with supple quickness from one storyline to the next (the present world, Andersen's past life, and his imaginary world of The Little Mermaid); beautifully managed for adults, but again, something that would disorientate (and, I fear, bore) children.
As the story develops, Andersen's passion for Edvard becomes increasingly overwhelming, leading to some electrifyingly tense physical moments between the two men on stage, and a species of psychological breakdown which Edvard expresses by anguished, desperate letters (read aloud). For a short time, he tries to replace Edvard in his affections by an equally ill-fated passion for a very bored looking Jenny Lind (played well by Jennifer Johnson, who really excelled in her smaller speaking parts, particularly her fabulously angry Italian landlady and her wisecracking cockney maid), but it's to no avail. Finally, Andersen gives his own story an ironic resolution only he can't see: he lets the Little Mermaid (his avatar, if you like) transcend into heaven, while he departs on endless travels to try to distract himself from Edvard (to the relief of Edvard's wife); Andersen is now condemned to life on land without the love he craves, just as his Mermaid was, and his only escape will be death. He thinks he has transcended too, though in fact, he has merely prolonged his pain.
The sexual tension on stage is palpable; the themes are difficult; the focus is on Andersen, not the Little Mermaid. As a godmother of three (boys and girls, a range of ages), I can't think of a single child who would sit through it. Even at 14 or 15, I don't think I would have enjoyed this. At 31, I found it very, very sad.