Angsty depths and fabulous fantasy in Northern Ballet's Little Mermaid (4 stars)

Angsty depths and frilly fathoms of fabulous fantasy in Northern Ballet's Little Mermaid

Spectacular Hans Christian Andersen adaptation that doesn't forget the darkness of the original fairytale

Both Disney and Darryl Hannah have reimagined Hans Christian Andersen's classic love story in the past. Northern Ballet's new version doesn't have a hustling sea-witch (Disney's Ursula was an amazing amalgam of Bea Arthur, Joan Collins, Divine and an octopus) or a mermaid learning English from daytime TV like in Splash, but it does dial up the tortured romance of the original 1837 story.

Just as The Ugly Duckling was semi-autobiographical, The Little Mermaid is often interpreted as Andersen's own tale of unrequited love. As a failed ballet dancer turned writer, and someone who many believe lived as a closeted bisexual, his tale can be read as a tortured outsider's lament, or a social climber's struggle to escape the confines of class.

Kimie Nakano's spectacular set is like a giant, irridescent abalone shell, glinting and shimmering as a mirrored backdrop for glowing jellyfish to float past. The weightless choreography is gorgeous; the ultra-feminine girliness of the mythical sea creatures is cranked right up as mermaids with pastel cornrows and sequined, pleated fishtails ripple effortlessly through the air, pulsing tails held up by muscly Water Men in defiantly unbutch Laura Ashley-style billowy skirts. The shamelessly pretty aesthetic is reinforced by Sally Beamish's delicate score, creating a tranquil underwater world with tinkling xylophone and soporific harp.

But beneath the dreamy, frothy surface, and the old fashioned romance of one tiny siren's attempt to find love, the production doesn't forget the darkness of the original fish out of water fairytale, where a lovestruck teenager drinks a potion to turn her mermaid tail into legs, only to discover her prince doesn't even remember meeting her. And in a cruel twist any drag queen would be horrified by, the mermaid's sisters have their flowing wigs ripped off as punishment by the Lord of the Sea when they try to help her.

Northern Ballet like telling stories with their productions; they veer between bold and chocolate-boxey choices, interpreting a Holocaust novel one year with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and festive favourite The Nutcracker the next. The Little Mermaid falls somewhere in between; the angsty depths are still there to plumb in the storyline if you want, or you can just float about in the frilly fathoms of fabulous fantasy underworld realness.

Milton Keynes Theatre, Tue 17–Sat 21 Apr; Leicester Curve, Tue 1–Sat 5 May.

The Little Mermaid

Based on the famous fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid tells of a young mermaid who is willing to give up everything she knows for love and the desire to gain a human soul.

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