In a similar style to Schwartz’s Wicked, Unfortunate tells the story of how Ursula the Sea Witch came to be the villain we all know and love from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. From her childhood, bullied for being different, to an unexpected romance with a young King Triton, to her involvement with Ariel and the story we’re familiar with, we see this story told with Ursula as the star she deserves to be!
This show is ultimately a triumph. At its core, it celebrates those who are different and recognizes their power and complexity as people beyond stereotypes as well as the beauty of who they are not simply in spite of their differences, but because of them! With many overtones celebrating queerness and diversity in general, the largest (excuse my pun) message here is seeing Ursula’s bigger body as more than a tired clue that she’s the bad guy.
For too long, theatre has relegated those in larger bodies to sidekick or villain tropes, unless a character’s fatness is integral to their story (and even then we delve into the world of fat suits… but I digress). Not here; not even a little bit! Here, Ursula has so much more than width – she has depth! She’s a love interest! She’s an intelligent, funny, emotional role model! This is what the industry needs!!!
Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx’s script is truly excellent – witty, wild, and wonderful, with so many laugh-out-loud moments (including fish puns galore) as well as real heart. It’s complimented beautifully by Tim Gilvin’s astounding composition which references the source material just enough without feeling cheap. The creators really understand what it is they’re aiming to do here, and they do so with exceptional talent.
It was a shame that some of the no-doubt gold of the material was lost due to poor sound balancing – too often, if an actor was facing away or other people were singing at the same time, it became difficult to hear what was going on. We could also do with a little more deliberate direction as some scenes feel slightly too full or lacking spark (particularly those without song), and very occasionally performances seemed to lack the umph required for a show like this one.
However, overall, all performers must be commended for their commitment and talent on display! Shawna Hamic is a fabulously strong lead, though at times we long for Ursula to take more command of the material and the audience and really lean into her vulnerable side. Thomas Lowe gives us the ultimate himbo as Triton; Jamie Mawson is a hilariously entitled Eric; and Julian Capolei displays fabulous range and flare in all their roles. Speaking of multi-roling, the stand-out star[fish] of this production is Allie Dart, a triple threat who switches between characters like her life depends on it, is rarely off stage, and is completely and utterly captivating whenever she’s on!
This production is visually stunning. Abby Clarke has excelled in this set, costume, and puppet design; the puppetry in particular is a highlight of this piece in general. While perhaps in the show’s future we could see something even more spectacular for Ursula, the tentacled dress is brilliant, and the general aesthetic of the show is breathtaking.
Larger than life and with a beautiful fat heart, this really is a very special and important piece of theatre. With all the charm of a Fringe show, the flare of a lasting run, and (with a little polish) the real potential of a West End hit, a night spent watching Unfortunate is going to be anything but!
It runs at The Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) until 17th February 2024.
Review: Penny Lane Photos: Pamela Raith