Review: Unfortunate at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Review: Unfortunate at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Unfortunate – The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch

Newcastle Theatre Royal

2nd July 2024

I have been looking forward to seeing ‘Unfortunate’ ever since I heard of its existence as an offering at Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2019. It has been on tour in the area before but I was so keen not to miss it on this occasion, that I hot-footed it back from deepest Northumberland and I am delighted that I did so. 

A caveat about this review before I start. You may know the story of Ariel, the head-strong youngest daughter of King Triton and her desire for a life with her handsome prince, Eric, above the sea which will stand you in good stead for getting to grips with this alternative take on the story told from the point of view of the most wonderful Disney antagonist of all time. The caveat is, that I will not be able to go into too much detail as it would spoil the spectacle for anyone who has yet to see this irreverent version which takes the audience back to when Ursula Squirt was a young octopus who fortunately knows a little magic – proving that it is a talent that she always has possessed. Ironically, Ursula, The Sea Witch, has taken this reviewer’s words.

The first issue the writing team of Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx need to address is how on ocean, Ursula is even around to tell her tale – having been apparently stabbed through the heart by a ship at the end of the Disney animated movie. Well, it’s quite simple – she’s a demigod – and you do not get rid of them quite as easily as that. There is another rather thorny problem of her familial relationship with King Triton which is delightfully sorted with a curt breaking of the fourth wall to suggest that previous suggestions were either misinformed or downright ingenuous. This made me laugh out loud because as I was watching the production no sooner had I thought ‘Hang on a minute…’ then the matter was dealt with and no-one is going to argue with a feisty and surprisingly buxom octopus with an aptitude for dark magic. 

Once Ariel is on the scene, the story largely follows the Disney version but with a few slight tweaks, perhaps to avoid any litigation from the House of Mouse but all the characters are there in one form or another – but, perhaps, not quite as you made remember them.

Ursula is played quite wonderfully by Shawna Hamic and is unfettered by the restrictions placed upon her by a ‘U’ rating for a family audience that Disney may have placed upon her. She is free to say all the things she cannot in the movie – and she does! Ariel is played by River Medway and is every bit what one might expect a 14 sorry 16 year old headstrong teenager to be like. If Disney’s princesses are deemed to have attributes that are unachievable then Medway’s version offers a much more attainable and, dare I say it, accurate version of how a young teenage girl may react to falling in love for the first time. 

In the movie, Prince Eric is damper than a mermaid’s gusset and Jamie Mawson offers an extension on this with a childish, impetuous and aloof, Eric, which is much more likely. He loves his woman without a voice but it is very clear that he loves his hair much more. 

This is very much an ensemble piece and each actor in the entire cast provides some wonderful performances to bring this alternate tale of fishy derring dos to the stage but I have to single out Julian Capolei whose effete Grimsby and deliciously slutty Vanessa show off their immense athletic and balletic talents, and their characterisations had the audience wetting themselves with laughter whenever he appears. Triton is also wonderfully played by Thomas Lowe and is allowed to bring some stunning vocals to his role as King of the Underworld but as you have never seen him before. Lowe is a seasoned performer to the stage and it is no surprise that he has a vast musical theatre background including the accolade of being the youngest actor to take the role of Marius in Les Misérables. 

The action takes place on a set which resembles Prince Eric’s ship and the design (Abby Clarke) works very well indeed. Clarke is also credited with the costume and puppet design which must have kept her very busy indeed. The lighting (Adam King) is wonderfully over the top with deep purples used to outstanding effect.

This is a musical so it would be remiss of me not to mention the music by Tim Gilvin. The biggest praise that I can give Gilvin is that he achieves the essence of Alan Menken’s incredible score from the original animated classic and in some cases manages to interweave several other Disney classics into his very clever score. Bravo, maestro, bravo!

There is one musical number which slaps the audience over the face with a damp trout and it is absolutely wonderful. The song in question is called ‘We Didn’t Make it to Disney’ and parades the hard-working ensemble as the less attractive, odd-looking and downright queer fauna of the sea giving them a voice and making them unashamedly visible. Finally, the parody of ‘Part of Your World’ is also entirely unashamed and quite something to behold!

Unfortunate is to The Little Mermaid what Avenue Q is to Sesame Street if the latter was given a hefty dose of something you cannot buy on the streets and a never ending supply of shots colourful cocktails and glow-sticks. 

This parody musical by Grant, Foxx and Gilvin is everything I hoped and wanted it to be. If you want a hilarious adventure above or below the sea then this is the show for you – but leave the kids with granny at home – and strap yourself in. You’re in for a wild ride!

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