REVIEW: The Boy and the Mermaid (Albany Theatre, Deptford)

At the end of a week which brought a Twitter debate on the relative importance of adult and children’s theatre, it seemed apt that we found ourselves at a children’s show. Admittedly, this is not an infrequent occurrence for our family, this being our second visit to the Albany in as many weeks. Being a serial visitor does have its benefits, the first of which was collecting Crotchet’s baseball cap that she left behind last week. We also managed to avoid last Sunday’s rookie error and queued in good time to sit near the front, despite the Munchkins protesting that they really would rather sit stand up high and lean over the balcony rail. Mummy made some non-committal empathetic noises about how lovely last week’s seats were before ushering them into the stalls, and settled down to watch The Boy and the Mermaid (a Paper Balloon production inspired by the real life experiences of refugees).

It began, as all good shows do, with a song. More accurately, a sea shanty sung by a trio of fisher-folk sporting impressive woolly beards. In a jolly opening section, during which the house lights remained on, the audience got to know these sea-faring storytellers who love nothing more than a nice cup of tea. There followed the traditional audience participation section, in which we were encouraged to clap and stamp along with some more sea shanties that set the scene for the story to come, and learned the words to a song that may just become important later. Main sail duly hoisted with a little help from the audience, the lights went down to signify the start of the story. And soon our fishy friends transported us to a topsy turvy town on a cliff-edge, to tell the tale of the townsfolk afraid of strangers from the sea.

And as the room got darker, so did the story. We learned of angry fishing families who cast the blame for empty nets upon outsiders they believed to be stealing their fish. Townspeople who put up barriers to stem the tide of thieving Merfolk. We met a boy who lived in a lighthouse. A boy whose dreams of the sea were dampened by his Grandmother, who feared he may meet the same end as his fisherman father. Following an upbeat interlude from Funktopus, the rapping Octopus, we witnessed the boy lured to the sea by the song of a siren. Predictably peril followed, with the boy falling into the water. Rescued by the mermaid, he followed her to her underwater home where he learned of its destruction and the truth about the monster eating all the fish. But then both were hauled into the nets of local fishermen who imprisoned the mermaid and tried her for the crime of being a foul fishy creature.

Did the boy successfully convince the townsfolk of the error of their ways? Or did the mermaid end up battered and served with chips and tartar sauce? Without wanting to spoil the entire story, it is safe to say that The Boy and the Mermaid is ultimately a tale about helping people in need and how people are stronger when they work together. As well as the healing powers of a nice cup of tea.

And in this spirit, the audience is integral to the resolution of the story, with the songs and actions learned at the start recurring at pivotal moments. Perhaps the most effective of these was the transformation of the seemingly trivial “hoist the main sail” action into a sea of helping hands. But there was also something very moving about the whole room united in song. And the adaptation of the recurring tea theme to remind us of the positive contributions that migrants can make to a community.

Rather like the sea, The Boy and the Mermaid is deeper than it first appears. It is a moving tale with clear resonance in today’s stormy political climate, told beautifully through innovative use of lighting, music and staging. The hardworking, energetic cast (Alex Kanefsky, Dorie Kinnear and Joseph Hardy) brought the story to life using a range of different techniques that demonstrated the versatility of puppets and sea shanties. The book is clever and Darren Clark’s song lyrics as witty in places as any Mummy has heard in an adult show. Joseph Hardy also demonstrated some impressive accordion skills. Masterfully balancing light and shade (in more than one sense), this hour long show managed to keep the audience enthralled throughout. And, knowing that audience, it ended with a repeat of the Funktopus rap (which Crotchet – now sporting her baseball cap backwards – declared to be her favourite). And a good old bubble machine.

In producing The Boy and the Mermaid, Paper Balloon demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to create contemporary theatre for children which is every bit as thought-provoking as adult shows. And not just for the children. This inclusive production is also commendable for producing a comprehensive visual resource for attendees with ASD and similar conditions. (Mummy admits that this was also a useful crib sheet for writing her summary of the story!) It was also really lovely to see the staff at the Albany sensitively taking a little boy with ear defenders for a tour of the empty theatre to prepare him for the show.

At a time when our country is bitterly divided it was refreshing to spend an hour immersed in a world where people learn to respect and appreciate the differences of others. And for this, Mummy awards the show a well-deserved rating of raindrops, whiskers, kettles and mittens (aka four out of five of my favourite things).