Abigail Prudames as Marilla feels the pain of her time on land. Photo Emma Kauldhar
Ballet is the most curious of theatrical conventions. Tales are told in often lurid detail, but never a word is spoken. There is music throughout, but almost never any kind of lyric. It is astonishingly physical, yet always graceful and often heartbreakingly delicate. It has sharply defined differences in female and male roles, yet plays freely with mythical creatures and supposedly inanimate objects.
A ballet is also a large undertaking, requiring the cooperation of dozens of people to create a coherent whole. In this context the decision of Northern Ballet to create three wholly new works is a brave and bold move, typical of this impressive company.
I was greatly impressed by the last of the three to grace the Norwich stage, Casanova, and so had high hopes for The Little Mermaid. The story made famous by Hans Christian Andersen probably dates even further back to the Greek tales of sirens in the sea, either helping or thwarting menfolk according to the different versions. Andersen himself was clearly a tortured soul who would probably get into all sorts of trouble in these censorious days but he has left us with a remarkable tale, to which Director David Nixon has done great justice.
The programme notes set out the story clearly, but I chose to ignore these and let the ballet tell me the story – which it does, with style and clarity. It is a magical and beautiful production which I can see becoming a standard work for ballet companies in years to come. In Norwich however we are privileged to be in at the start of this story, the tour is branded as ‘World Premiére’ as the first shows were only a few days ago. The accomplished stage cast give no hint of being anything but perfectly practiced in their dancing and stagecraft, making full use of the stage space with the most minimal of props and stage furniture.
There is a clear distinction between scenes in water and on land, rendered by clever but not intrusive lighting design and fabric textures. Designer Kimie Nakano has struck a perfect balance with just enough to give context to the dance and an ever changing variety of dancing spaces.
Ballet is sometimes seen as elite or inaccessible, but I took a young friend with me who has never seen a ballet before but was very impressed, and will undoubtedly go again. As a first ballet, this one is a winner so if you are one of those who hesitate to see ballet make sure you try this one – you’ve got until Saturday so get booking now!
The Little Mermaid is Marilla (Abigail Prudames) who saves a young Prince (Joseph Taylor) from a sinking ship. She is captivated by the Prince, but has to return to the sea. The Lord of the Sea Lyr (Matthew Topliss) gives her a potion which will allow her to return to land, but at a heavy price. Her fishy tail turns into a pair of legs, and she loses her enchanting siren voice and suffers constant pain. All in all a rather apt metaphor for a ballerina. She returns to the Prince but he has fallen for a young girl called Dana (Dreda Blow) who he believes saved him from the sea, mistaking hers for the siren voice of Marilla.
Adventures, romance and heartbreak all follow as the worlds of sea and land overlap briefly and the story reaches a climax.
This is a captivating production that features powerful and beautiful dancing with a particularly strong group of principals. Abigail Prudames is perfect as the Mermaid, a role created for her and to a great extent by her, and her subtle movement and gesture spell out her tragic story but also show that even on land, the sea never leaves her, with every move showing a swimmer’s grace with constant movement. Her possible love rival Dana is brought to charming life by Dreda Blow, giving a captivating account of a young carefree girl bowled over by love at first sight. Joseph Taylor makes the demanding role of the Prince look effortless – my companion asked ‘how can they jump so high yet land completely silently?’, and indeed the men have more than their fair share of lifting to complete as part of the watery movements required by Marilla and her sisters and the other creatures of the deep. Matthew Topliss gives the right look of power and authority to Lyr and will no doubt please his many loyal fans once again.
The score by Sally Beamish is all new, yet contains hints and phrases familiar from other genres such as sea shanties and Scottish dancing. Her music complements the dreamy watery theme of the ballet.
Overall this is a work where every element is good, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and we can feel privileged to be present at the birth of a new classic. Take your kids and your grandchildren to see The Little Mermaid, then one day they will say to their children and grandchildren: ‘I was there, for the very first the very first run of this magic and beautiful ballet’.
Matthew Topliss as Lyr, Lord of the Sea in David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid. Photo Emma Kauldhar
Tickets are on sale now and can be booked at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or by contacting the Box Office on 01603 630000.
Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid, Tuesday, September 26 to Saturday September 30, 2017. Eves 7.30pm, Mats Thur & Sat 2.30pm Tickets £8-£38.50. Discounts for Friends, Over 60s, Under 18s, Schools and Groups. Family tickets also available. BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk