The Little Mermaid

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan, four stars

BETWEEN the lines of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid lurks the warning ‘be careful what you wish for...’ In Northern Ballet’s new staging of his fairytale – choreographed by artistic director David Nixon – that cautionary note haunts every step that mermaid Marilla so painfully takes for true love.

Underwater, Marilla (Abigail Prudames) epitomises high-spirited wonderment and carefree grace. Nixon’s pale aqua-hued costume designs for the sea folk float gauzily with every move, the high lifts that swoop Marilla and her mermaid sisters across the stage conjure a quite magical illusion of weighlessness which – allied to the lilting Celtic surges in Sally Beamish’s music – suggests this is Arcadia below the waves. But then Marilla falls head over gossamer tail in love with a human, Prince Adair (a dashingly athletic Joseph Taylor). Her wish to be with him on-land (and have functioning legs) brings not just heartache, but physical agonies and ultimately fatal self-sacrifice.

Watching Prudames expressing a naive passion for a man who is only ever kind to her, is so harrowing you almost resent his happiness with a bride (Dreda Blow) who can join in the swaggering, reeling ensembles of wedding celebration – men in kilts, women in earthy reds and russets – or soften into a private waltz when the couple are alone.

It’s not just the costumes that define the different worlds. Nixon’s choreography – like Beamish’s specially commissioned score – shifts persuasively between the fluidity of the undersea realm and the more grounded energies on land.

And yet...there are also tantalising echoes in the Prince’s duets with Marilla, of their first encounter when she rescued him from drowning, and thereafter cherished his life above her own. Ingenious set designs, atmospheric lighting, exceptional performances - from live musicians and dancers alike – make you wish you could see it all again. Be warned – you’ll have to head to Milton Keyes for that!