Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch at Underbelly and on tour – review

The musical parody continues its Earls Court run until 16 July

Elliotte Williams-N'Dure in ''Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
Elliotte Williams-N'Dure with Allie Dart (left) and Jamie Mawson (right) in Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
(© Craig Sugden)

Fat Rascal Theatre is an award-winning theatre company known for its taboo-breaking musicals, like Buzz, which is about the history of the vibrator. Unfortunate, originally reviewed by WhatsOnStage at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, has been upscaled, recast and set on a UK tour including a second Edinburgh run this year. I have never seen a Fat Rascal show, but unfortunately for this risk-taking company, Unfortunate is fairly formulaic.

It is a saucier version of Wicked – it's a musical parody of The Little Mermaid with Ursula, the sea witch, front and centre. Much like Elphaba, Ursula is misunderstood rather than outright bad, and after having her heart broken, gets her happily ever after. As a villain in the original film, Ursula is free to be a b*tch, to break gender norms, to stay single – in short, to do whatever she wants, because she is not constrained by the same standards as the protagonists. To see her in a standard Disney princess narrative is disappointing. Throughout the show, the character drops hints about her life through passing jokes about sex and lifestyle, which tell us more about her character (and are more interesting) than the main narrative.

Having said that, Tim Gilvin's score is catchy and well-written. There are snippets from The Little Mermaid soundtrack and references to other musicals which are fun to notice. The composition is varied in style and well-executed by the small band. Satirical songs like "We Didn't Make It To Disney" offer a tongue-in-cheek nod to Walt's allegedly fascist past and "I Wanna Be Where the Boys with D**ks Are" gives a somewhat overegged but entertaining parody of the original. Other lyrics engage with contemporary issues, such as consent and toxic masculinity, with good-natured humour.

Elliotte Williams-N'Dure, who plays Ursula, has easy stage presence and a rich, luscious and powerful voice that fills the space, along with sensual, octopus-like movements. It is just a shame that her acting is not so varied, and her enunciation is unclear, so lyrics are hard to understand. A stand-out performer is Allie Dart, a Fat Rascal regular who works the audience with her sharp-shifting moves. Jamie Mawson is funny as Eric, and the rest of the ensemble is generally strong but would do well to allow jokes to land as opposed to rushing through the humour. Microphones don't always pick up the performer's vocals, and levels are too loud at times.

Hugh Purves' puppet designs are creative and surprising – we see a fish with a bloody eye hanging out of its socket beside a whole host of gorgeous and unusual sea creatures. But the performers' puppeteering technique could be better – they act with their faces as they work the puppets, so the audience's gaze is drawn towards the humans and the puppets are never quite alive.

Lighting design is timed well with the switches in music, and adds a source of comedy and romance. It is beautifully on-brand with the somewhat yonic green, pink and blue set. But the piece de resistance is Ursula's eight fat thigh-like tentacles and sharp-edged corset – her costume is one of the most watchable elements of the entire performance.

As our 2019 review notes, Fat Rascal are fringe favourites. Hanging around the Underbelly tent post-show, festival audiences cheer as Elliotte Williams-N'Dure exits stage door. But for this critic's taste, the show has a promising premise, but an unoriginal execution.

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