Before we begin I must make a disclaimer. There will no aquatic puns of any nature, especially of the piscine variety, perpetrated in the writing of this review. I take my mermaids very seriously. There was that one time as the sun was setting on North Cottesloe beach where, if you tilted your head at just the right angle and squinted into the sunlight, I swear you could see the shimmering mirage of a mackerel with the head of Angelina Jolie. It was a formative experience.
Okay, it’s no secret to say that the invalid woman our good doctor Sir Paul Martin brings home after a fishing trip is in fact a mermaid. She’s on the damn poster for goodness sake! Yep, tail and all. This delightful creature, swaddled in a blanket to conceal her lack of ambulatory prowess, wants to see the sights of London – its museums and operas – whilst also enjoying the attention of the decidedly upright men who are ensorcelled by her.
There are only a few problems with this. First off, well, she’s a mermaid. Secondly, said men are actually bound by the mundane human concept known as a committed relationship. Yes, the good doctor’s wife Lady Clare is none too happy, and the engaged maid Betty and equally betrothed socialite Isobel aren’t exactly thrilled about their other halves’ wandering attention spans either.
The setup is rife for a drawing room comedy of manners with a little upstairs-downstairs class structure thrown in for good measure and an outside disruption that is like nothing the rich and their servants have seen before. Set in London during the forties the action takes place in the Martin’s well-appointed living room. The comedy runs more to the one liner and pun variety where the unwitting players dance around Miranda’s true identity – yes, there truly is something “fishy” about this interloper.
But this was the major issue I had with the play – the construction of the narrative itself. The audience is well ahead of most of the characters regarding Miranda’s true nature and we’re basically waiting for them to play catch up. This means the natural expectation of seeing the tail and full extent of the mermaid persona has to be denied the viewer as it must remain hidden from the bulk of the characters. This felt contrived and slowed proceedings down for me. The effect it has on the type of humour deployed means we are laughing more at the characters for being so dim-witted - how could they not know what we know? - than, for the most part, genuinely comic entanglements.
However, there was much to like here. Natalie Aung Than, with impressive eyelashes and long blonde wig, is suitably beguiling as Miranda. She plays the ‘patient’ with a mix of wide eyed excitement at the wonders of London and a subtle knowing of the impact her charms have on the menfolk. When the blankets are finally cast aside in a lovely sequence she looks agile and sleek with the tail being an impressive piece of costuming. Rhett Clarke plays the doctor with a certain English foppishness that was kind of endearing as it precluded any sense of dubious intent. His Sir Paul was more the well-intentioned yet absent-minded professor archetype.
I was most impressed with Tayla Howard who really sparkles as Isobel, the hat store owner and willing gossip. Belinda Djurdjevic (Betty, a housemaid), Rodney Palmer (Charles, the manservant) , Christine Ellis (Nurse Cary) and Brendan Ellis (Nigel Hood) all give solid support which leaves the actual lead of the play, Mary Murphy as Lady Clare Martin. While Miranda may be the centre of attention the story is really about how Lady Clare deals with this intrusion and doubts about her husband’s fidelity before finally working out the real situation. In many ways it’s a thankless part as the character really is the foundation around which the exposition and showier roles are built upon. Murphy handles this well with a straight-forward honesty that is hard to fault.
The costuming (Lynda Stubbs) is very well done aside from the mermaid tail which is the highlight. There is a touch of class in the choices for both male and female which befits the higher strata of society the Martins and Isobel occupy. The play worked best for me when we see the ramifications of Miranda’s enchantment. At one point Charles and Nigel, having broken off their respective engagements to Betty and Isobel, arrive at the same time to propose marriage to Miranda. It is both funny and telling.
Miranda is a pleasant couple of hours with gentle humour and a charming conceit and has 4 more shows on at the Garrick Theatre in Guildford until 13 December. It was written by Peter Blackmore, Directed by Rodney Palmer and stars Belinda Djurdjevic, Tayla Howard, Mary Murphy, Rhett Clarke, Natalie Aung Than, Rodney Palmer, Christine Ellis and Brendan Ellis.