Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Urusla the Sea Witch

Book and Lyrics: Robyn Grant & Daniel Foxx

Director: Siobhan Cannon-Brownlie

There have been wicked witches, mistresses of evil, and fashionistas with a fetish for puppy fur. There is, however, only one Ursula. Plus-size, fabulous, proud and sick of your shit – this sea witch is going to give us the down and dirty. This Sea Witch is on a mission to save the oceans from the humans above, fight for the ugly, downtrodden sea-creatures and most importantly, reclaim her agency as a strong, independent, fat purple woman.

Fat Rascal Theatre has a name for transforming unique narratives into a hot, vivacious mess of colour, song and commentary. Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch is no exception. Bombastic scoring, belting vocals, and a host of eccentric reject puppets serve up the premiere musical of this year’s Fringe.

The year is 1989, the Walt Disney Company are facing a catastrophically poor decade of sales, faith and mediocre film receptions. They have to return to what made them a household name. Casting away the shackles of originality, taking chances and dark tales – they had to go under the sea.

Returning to Princess fairy-tales, Hans Cristian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was their choice, and it was a staggering success. Most successful, something no one would have suspected, was an Octo-Woman based on the Drag Queen Divine. Large, scene-stealing and given life by Pat Carroll, Ursula was a return to form for Villain royalty and sits as an LGBTQI+ icon.

So how on earth do you capture such an iconic character? Robyn Grant not only oozes ambitious, authoritative control of the stage, but she also pays tribute to Carroll’s creation of the role in every sense. This is the Sea Witch, living, breathing, grinding and bundles more flair and energy. Vocally, Grant has sublime control, managing to break the fast-paced show into hypnotic, freezing moments as you soak in the atmosphere.

If you’re in the front row, a cautionary warning, this production may conjure states of unexpected arousal. No one on stage requires magic when they have this much rampant desire, filth and depravity. The script is laden with innuendo, firing out at you left, right and centre, sometimes obvious, often hiding in plain sight.

A Queen in every right, Grant must, unfortunately, share her crown with another. Allie Munro has boundless energy, staggering range and dedication to her performances. The pace in which Munro adapts from Jamaican, via Donegal, crab Sebastian into the sultry, sensually seductive Vanessa leaps above impressive.

No one leaves miserable – the only Poor Unfortunate Souls are those begging for tickets outside the door. With no-where else to turn, they listen to cackles, sniggers and on occasion the genuine heartfelt moments and rally cries against suppression. Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch is another exceptionally well-constructed production from Fat Rascal. It’s wicked, it’s saucy, it’s modern, but above all – it’s nasty.

Tickets available at: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/unfortunate-the-untold-story-of-ursula-the-sea-witch

Alice in Wonderland – Traverse Theatre

Original author: Lewis Carroll

Director: Niall Henry

Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke

How do you re-tell Alice in Wonderland in a way which has not been done before? The truth is, many can’t. Blue Raincoat, however, take an explored aspect, of an older Alice revisiting her time in Wonderland. How they go about this, cobbled together with string and sinew is intriguingly different.

As we are catapulted through the tale of Alice in Wonderland, this is whirlwind storytelling. We are swept off our feet, whizzing around the pages of the story, encountering all of our fond childhood favourites. They seem though, unlike what many will remember. For this is no Disneyfied version of madness, no this is Lewis Carroll via the Brothers Grimm.

There’s an undercurrent of identity with Alice but also with our own stories author. As the older Alice recounts her time in Wonderland, she begins to involve herself, blurring the lines of which Alice we are watching. Our two Alice’s are Hilary Brown-Walsh (Older) and Miriam Needham (Young).

They match each other well, almost too well, as little seems to change in Alice following her adventures. Brown-Walsh makes for an adept narrator at first, an intriguing Alice, but it is in the opening and closing where she shines. Needham has clout and a great deal of vigour. Her aggression takes a twisted form, the Cheshire’s infamous; “We’re All Mad Here” hints at an Alice with an unhinged fascination.

Where many adaptations fall is in forgetting the original stories appeal, the attraction to Alice in Wonderland is inherently the journey she goes on. The velocity in which we traverse this incarnation is quick, perhaps too quick for a younger audience, doing what it can to keep the audience up to speed. Though it will not wait for stragglers with seldom peaceful moments.

The Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, along with the March Hare, the White Rabbit and of course, the Cheshire Cat, these are the classic creations of literature. It is with such care, such love and devotion that Blue Raincoat give each one the performance they deserve.

Most notably Sean Elliot as the March Hare and Red Queen and John Carty the White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat. They both give such conviction in their roles, taking the insanity of Wonderland and pushing it to the nth degree. Elliot brings tremendous energy, his Queen is as menacing as she is ridiculous.

Paul McDonnell’s set design is made from an assortment of curios and simple pieces from around an abandoned home. The magic created is clever with large portrait frames which serve as doors, card guards or a way to visualise movement. A series of tables visualise Alice’s gradual increase or decrease, a delightful way to deal with difficult transitions.

As we lament the Mock Turtle, the madness of it all comes crashing down in melancholic doldrums. Here Bowen-Walsh serenades her young self in the guise of the elderly Turtle. It’s a bittersweet melody centred on the soup for which the Turtle is famous. Its sentiment becomes clear as the old Turtles eyes well, a testament to the emotive performer Bowen-Walsh is. Lingering a little too long, souring the effect – a verse less and perhaps it might have kept its impact.

A tantalising macabre version, Blue Raincoat’s Alice in Wonderland is a visual feast, inventive in its storytelling mechanics. It’s rammed filled with characters, clever artistry and some funny lines but finds itself wrapping it’s coattails up in its own whirlwind of delivery.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/alice-in-wonderland-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

Production touring: https://www.blueraincoat.com/alice-in-wonderland/j6hcv68zki2l1wmqp4h0jv8rzyaj1w

Image Contribtuion: Steve Rogers

Dumbo (2019)

Trailer Rights:
The Walt Disney Company

Directed by Tim Burton

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

Based on the book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearly

As the ol’ Disney fan favourite Casey Junior trundles across Greater America, so too does the endless train of Live-Action Disney remakes grind to a halt with Dumbo. The original 1941 animated piece saved the Walt Disney company following weak sales from Fantasia. It was short, simplistic but a prime example of exquisite storytelling and poignant tugs at the heartstrings. This remake succeeds with visual splendour but loses out on much of the desperately needed heart.

In the betwixt and between is Ehren Kruger’s (of Transformers fame…) screen adaptation which takes the simplistic appeal of Dumbo and instead fuels it with overcomplications and hollow visuals. Tim Burton stated he considers Dumbo to be ‘a simple story’, which it is. It sits alongside Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) as an adventure where the character encounters rather than creates the traditional Barthes’ linear narrative. In the original, Dumbo has no real adversary, no goal and is instead driven by other characters prompts. Kruger’s injection of drama to stretch out a narrative which seems to cross a multitude of other films.

Still subject to the travelling Circus, Jumbo Jnr is subject to the bullying, frustrations and removal from his mother after being branded the freakish ‘Dumbo’. From here the plot dives headfirst into the Disneyland reject pile as he is made the new star of V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland.

In truth, no performance is outstanding and even the most accomplished performers are on auto-pilot. Though, as always Danny DeVito manages to garner laughs by exuding his presence. An almost twisted take on Walt himself, Micheal Keaton’s Vandevere is a man whose emphasis on imagination is enjoyable but perplexing. It’s a drastic headscratcher for a Disney production to place an imaginer in the helm of an antagonist.

We’re unsure who the primary focus should be with. Naturally, we would assume Dumbo but the film angles us towards children Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). By the introduction of Dumbo, we seem to have our protagonist, until a romance is shoe-horned in. Their father Holt returns from the first world war – his left arm lost in an undiscussed event.  Focus shifts to Holt and the acrobat Colette Marchmont (Eva Green). The direction is all over the place, snapping our necks in an attempt to identify where we should cast attention.

Burton’s trademark stamp is rampant throughout the film, not only visually but in its construction. Containing the deep richness of his colour palette, this is evident in the costume design. Even more so is the lighting aesthetic Burton utilises, sharp strikes of bold yellow light against darker – neutral tones. Then, of course, there are the eyes. His signature cinematography lends itself to Dumbo’s large, empathetic eyes. There are just a few too many shots which relies on this too much, diluting the effect quite quickly.

Sadly, this makes Dumbo more of a Buton piece than a Disney one. Whilst there is nothign wrong with a Burtonesque incarnation, far from it, the intention pushes it into the hands of one creator over another.

As for Jumbo Jnr himself, the visual effects team have endeavoured to maintain the engaging demeanour of the large-ear elephant. They succeed, the CGI model is adorable in some close-up shots, but from a distance has no weight. When a near 80-year-old 2D model connects greater with the audience than your modern-day creation, there is an issue. Nowhere is this more evident than what should be the pathos-driven separation of Dumbo and his mother. There is little pain, rushed and allowing for no sense of urgency as the ‘mad elephant’ is whisked away. Instead of focusing on the sorrow of Dumbo, we are pushed into following the Farrier children’s plans.

There are though, short flights of fancy which, with expansion would have lifted Dumbo. The second half, for as far as the plot may reach contains pathos, humour and snippets of tension. It only extends so far, but there are intakes of breath at Dumbo’s first flight. With a climax that is much grander than expected, here pacing is also drastically improved, though the editing is sloppy on occasion with poor cuts and failed continuity. The particular highlight as is Burton’s take on the infamous Pink Elephants. Dumbo is no longer intoxicated for the encounter, but his gentle fascination with the bubbles galloping along to Danny Elfman’s take on the original score by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace is delightful.

If only the first two-thirds had an ounce of heart that the closing had, perhaps Dumbo would sit in the upper tier of the Disney remakes. Comparisons to the original are inevitable, and whilst Tim Burton’s signature auteur style is abundant across the piece, it lacks the warmth, ingenuity or creativity from the 1941 masterpiece. It certainly isn’t the weakest of the dredged up fantasy epics from Disney, but far from the pinnacle – so wake me up when we have A Whole New World to revisit with Aladdin.