Friday 11 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, or, What This Festival Needs is Sexual Innuendo (Apparently)

This show reflects, I suspect, two things. Firstly, another instance of Fergus Linehan's broadening of the range of cultural forms represented in the programme. Secondly, an attempt to repeat the success of last year's magnificent Alan Cumming residency. I wish I could report this show was as good.

The title implies a retelling of the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid but one which has “gone rogue” and is “subversive” according to the festival brochure. I'm prepared to accept the first, though I found it increasingly a dull roguery, but not the second – unless sexual innuendo is still considered to be subversive.
The structure, in so far as the show has one, is a strange hybrid – split between a tale of “Meow Meow” the stage performer, and her subconscious fantasy about being the Little Mermaid, a product of her failures in love. It has some promising moments – the manner in which Meow Meow takes us below the sea is very cleverly and beautifully done (and benefits from one of the stronger musical numbers – there aren't many of them and they are not especially memorable). The final lighting and bubble effect is magical. There are some very funny moments. But unfortunately, there were too many stretches where I lost interest, and too many places where the material feels eked out to fill more space than it is up to. The script (and humour) is also overly dependent on sexual innuendo – early on some of this is funny, but I didn't find it shocking and as it goes on it simply palls.

The show includes a great deal of interaction with the audience – including Meow Meow crowd-surfing which I gather is a regular feature of her shows (had I known I'd have booked a seat further back). Breaking the fourth wall in cabaret is common, but a lot of this feels obviously done and undermined the proposed fantasy. There are places where the show seems to be wanting the audience to sympathise with the plight of Meow Meow as Mermaid but the creation of that fantasy was, to my eye, so thinly done to that point, and so much self-mocked while it was being done, that I didn't really believe in it. Emotional connection, as far as I was concerned, particularly when Meow Meow was going on (and on) about her failures with men, was limited. A further problem is that some of the narrative turns can be spotted a mile away, but nevertheless take an age to arrive (particularly the “romance” with the alleged stage technician – I've seen much cleverer and more powerful playing with the conceit of being a “show”). And there's the familiar slightly mocking reference to the show being in the International Festival – it's a tired, overused joke. It's interesting to note that I cannot recall a single instance of a classical musician making a parallel remark in the twenty years I've been attending.

In principle I have no objection to including cabaret in the International Festival – as noted the Alan Cumming performance last year was quite outstanding. I do think there is a question whether the Festival should be putting on shows which (like this one I suspect) might just as easily have been staged by the Fringe – surely the purpose of the EIF is to do the things the Fringe can't do – even if that window in non-classical music forms gets harder to find as the years go on – though it is rather striking to contrast EIF music efforts here with the Proms. If Fergus Linehan is, as it appears to me, simply going to take his stand on the platform of “look we have room for this too” then the Festival should at least be making more of an effort to build audience cross-over on the back of shows like this. Instead, as with Alan Cumming last year opportunities are missed. Many in the audience were seated for 30+ minutes at tables waiting and drinking pre-performance but had the Festival's marketing department put out any brochures or fliers for them to look at? No. Nor did anybody bother to flier the departing audience.

Taken simply on its own terms, this is a disappointing show. If you're a fan of Meow Meow you may well enjoy it more than I did (though it seems from other reviews that the fare will be familiar to her past performances). Otherwise it is missable. I'm unconvinced it's good enough work to have made the jump from Fringe to EIF, and I remain doubtful about Fergus Linehan's overall strategy with this kind of programming addition though not, as I hope I've made clear, the principle of broadening the programme's range.

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