Mention The Little Mermaid in my family and we immediately think of the Disney video still lurking in a cupboard somewhere, the one watched so often when my daughters were little that the case is broken and the tape stretched thin. But Bristol Old Vic's latest family-friendly Christmas show reaches further back to the Hans Christian Andersen original - the one I read as a child - to bring a fresh new interpretation of this much-loved fairy tale to the stage.
Bristol Old Vic has a strong tradition of creating spell-binding theatre based on children's classics such as Peter Pan and Swallows and Amazons, and this year's production is no exception. The Little Mermaid lives under the sea with her father and sisters, using her beautiful voice to do 'songing' by order of the villainous Sea Witch. She's full of curiosity and dreams of visiting the surface and meeting the 'who-mans' who live there, but this will only be allowed for one brief day on her seventeenth birthday. When that day finally arrives, she sets off in great excitement, little realising that it will lead her into sacrificing her most prized possession and change the course of her life forever.
This show resonates with inventive fishiness, particularly in the first half, as our heroine bides her time in her shell garden and alarms her father with her desire to break away from the constraints of underwater life. The Little Mermaid swims with the support of the rest of the cast, who transport her above their heads and use clever movement of fins and tails to introduce a sense of restlessness in an ever-shifting sea. Katie Moore is convincing in the title role and there are strong performances too from Beverly Rudd as the Sea Witch and Tristan Sturrock as the father who is never able to express his true emotions while watching his youngest daughter grow away from him. The dialogue, which sparkles with wit, is also on occasion tinged with sadness and regret as the versatile ensemble switches effortlessly between roles; tackling narration, song, musical instruments, physicality and audience participation all with great flair.
Jon Bausor's set has a structural beauty and simplicity with the sculptural shape of the waves far above transforming into the surface of the sea as the Little Mermaid swims towards it. The atmospheric lighting, particularly in the storm which greets her as she first sets eyes on the Prince, emphasizes the differences between the two worlds and the original songs composed by Shlomo and DJ Walde, although at first in danger of being too saccharine for my teenage daughter, grow stronger as the story unfolds.
The version of The Little Mermaid on my dusty old video tape is aimed fairly and squarely at young children but, in many ways, Bristol Old Vic's tale with its themes of setting out in the world, transformation and finally finding your own voice, is equally well suited to teenagers. Although the idea of living happily-ever-after seems anachronistic in these days of striving for gender equality, realisation dawns that the Prince has as much to lose as the Little Mermaid if he doesn't find his true love and get married by a pre-ordained deadline. Bristol Old Vic's magical retelling of The Little Mermaid, encompassing all the wonder of daring to dream no matter what the sacrifice, is at its heart a warm and uplifting adventure and one which should enchant audiences of all ages this Christmas.
You can watch The Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic until 18th January 2014. All photos reproduced here and my tickets are courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.