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  • Henry Longstaff

Unfortunate - Southwark Playhouse Elephant

A proud and purple parody

Unfortunate at Southwark Playhouse
Photograhy - Pamela Raith


Unfortunate is to The Little Mermaid as Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz but a whole lot nastier. Deviating enough from the beloved Disney version to avoid a probable lawsuit, the narrative flips the story we thought we knew on its head and offers up an evening of well-crafted humour imbued with modern morals and a script cruder than oil. The hit fringe show now exists as a fully-fledged musical bursting with naughtiness, power ballads and enough crass lyrics to tarnish a once wholesome childhood.

Telling the tale from the tentacled Ursula’s perspective, we see her teenage years and first love with the future king Triton before she was cruelly banished from the kingdom of Atlantica by his father following a false murder accusation. But years later a desperate Triton turns to her for assistance when his youngest daughter and heir Ariel needs a less than gentle push in the right direction if she is to successfully succeed him as ruler. Events fail to go as expected and though twenty years have passed, Ursula and Triton find the feelings they once held have refused to fade.

Intense smuttiness is at the core of this production. Cascades of innuendo and outright obscenity explode from the stage ensuring that this is very much an adult-only affair. Writers Grant and Foxx do not hold back the tide of crass, opting to let the floodgates fully open where every seat in the theatre is positioned within the splash zone. But don’t be fooled, this remains a highly accomplished and technical musical with a score containing few damp numbers and a plot that somehow finds fresh ground despite being derived from such a familiar source. It does dip somewhat in the second half of both acts when relentless swearing begins to wear, but this is a bombastic production, peppered with melodic callbacks and foreshadowing, hefty design and some top brass performances. 

Crossing the pond to play Ursula is the talented Shawna Hamic, who undoubtedly thrives as the eight-legged villain. Confident and cool she stalks the stage whilst explaining her story, stepping in to play her awkward teenage self opposite the towering but dimwitted Triton (Thomas Lowe). The sparks fly between them during the song ‘Sucking On You’ as they squeeze into a heavily graffitied toilet cubicle, the chemistry undeniable. Hamic leads much of the vocals for the show with ease and stability but does struggle to get the more rapid lyrics of the titular song ‘Unfortunate’ out in time, partially extinguishing the song’s momentum as the act one closer. Lowe performs the most rousing number of the evening with ‘To Be King’ as he questions the life thrust upon him and the sacrifices he had no choice but to make. It, like many of the numbers on show are nuggets of musical theatre gold in which Tim Gilvin’s score soars.

Arguably it is Allie Dart’s multi-rolling performance (predominantly as Sebastian) that steals the show. Barely leaving the stage, unless to make a near-instantaneous costume change, Dart excels in every aspect, her wicked comedic timing appearing effortless and her arsenal of accents and characters are surely the stuff of casting directors’ dreams. She seamlessly shifts between the varied characters, offering distinct physicality aided by Abby Clarke’s wondrous costume design and is an utter delight to watch. Similarly, fellow original cast member Jamie Mawson brings utter joy to each of his characters. Whether it be the unusual and oh-so-slightly incestuous father to Triton or the shallow and scatterbrained Prince Eric, he exudes silliness and comedic brilliance particularly when paired with the impressive Drag Race star River Medway’s Ariel whom he lovingly refers to as ‘speechless woman.’

Unfortunate would not be what it is without Abby Clarke’s miraculous design. Covering costume, set and puppetry Clarke has created a vibrant underwater world worthy of a stage ten times the size. The wooden ship that forms the majority of the scenic design is magnificent without overpowering and her puppets are spectacular. Within the desolate, dark waters where Ursula has made her home, the characters that ‘didn’t make it to Disney’ dwell and the grotesque creatures Clarke has created are perfection - imagine a weird, aquatic version of the Lion King and you’re about halfway there, outstanding. 

This show is sadly not without issues and many of them arrive through the sound design and mixing. Maybe it was my seat in the theatre, maybe not, but many of the ensemble's lines were lost during musical numbers, either drowned out by the band or not amplified in time. This is a particular bugbear as I know that there is brilliance in Grant and Foxx’s lyrics that is actively being washed away. The show too could benefit from a tiny bit more editing as the two acts are a little too long and sag as a result.

This madcap parody musical has swum from strength to strength since its inaugural outing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 (there is aerial work now for Christ's sake) and I sincerely hope that it has a long life ahead of it yet. Unfortunate is, in the very best way, chaos personified, ready and waiting to tarnish your no longer innocent childhood.

Running until 17th February - Tickets

Photography - Pamela Raith

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