YORK Theatre Royal turns into a circus for four days when Metta Theatre combine acrobatic skills with original live music in an uplifting new version of Little Mermaid.

Visionary artistic directors Poppy Burton-Morgan and William Reynolds, the creative team behind Metta’s hit show Jungle Book, join with composer Matt Devereaux for a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story with book, lyrics and direction by Burton-Morgan, minimalist set and lighting design by Reynolds and 1950s’ swimwear designs by Loren Elstein.

Burton-Morgan’s politically provocative, radical feminist re-imagining transposes Andersen’s fable to the 1950s. “That’s when the only thing more rigid than the girdles are the gender norms,” she says. “Beneath the waves, though, another world awaits those brave enough to dive in; a world of gender fluidity and fluctuating identities.”

York Press:

"Beneath the waves, another world awaits those brave enough to dive in," says Metta Theatre's Poppy Burton-Morgan

While the Little Mermaid longs to rise and glimpse the world of man, the Prince longs to escape the rigidity of his world for the unknown depths beneath the waves in a show that combines circus, new writing and physical theatre to mark the 250th anniversary of circus with such skills as acrobatics, the cyr wheel, juggling and aerial feats.

Known for powerfully visual storytelling and an exploration of stories from a female perspective, Metta continue this strategy with another predominantly female cast for Little Mermaid, comprising circus artists and actor musicians, such as Rosalind Ford, Rosie Rowlands and Tilly Lee Kronick, playing the title role opposite Matt Knight as the Prince.

Matt Devereaux’s sumptuous score, meanwhile, has the orchestral sweep of a Hollywood film, allied to soaring vocal melodies, brought to life by Candida Caldicot.

“This is our first time at York Theatre Royal and we’re thrilled to be coming,” says Poppy, who established Metta with Reynolds in 2005. “Damian [artistic director Damian Cruden] and I were introduced to each other at another regional theatre on the touring circuit, and we spoke about work we could make that would chime with the work Damian does.”

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Bubbling up: Aelfwyn Shipton in Metta Theatre's Little Mermaid. Picture: Frank Dwyer

Metta’s work is “meta-theatre”, the buzzword for “the cross-art-form theatre practice that combines emotionally powerful performances with imaginative theatricality and striking visual style”. “At the heart of all our work is ‘metatheatrical presentation’, and we use the term in the sense of our work being theatre that’s aware of its own theatricality,” says Poppy. “On top of that, Metta with two T’s is the Buddhist word for compassion, love and kindness, values that are really important to us.”

The Metta theatrical style is highly visual on account of Reynolds’s input as set and lighting designer. “That’s crucial to our work, where we tell stories with imagination using words, movement, music, projection, puppetry and circus,” says Poppy.

“After a puppetry and circus version of The King Of Tiny Things and a hip-hop and circus version of Jungle Book, now we’re doing a circus and musical theatre Little Mermaid, and next year we’ll be doing a British Sign Language, hip-hop and musical theatre In The Willows.”

Combining circus with musical theatre was a logical leap for Little Mermaid, reckons Poppy. “The crucial part of the narrative is that Little Mermaid loses her voice and finds it again, so having music was natural for this piece,” she says. “There’s also something magical about circuses that allows audiences into an imaginary world very easily. Circus is a great art-form that can create visual metaphors.”

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Bubble at the double: Aelfwyn Shipton and Roo Jenkyn-Jones in Little Mermaid. Picture: Frank Dwyer

As for Poppy’s “radical radical feminist re-imagining” of Andersen’s tale, she says: “This is what we do a lot of the time with our work, reimagining the popular narratives and subverting them,” she says. “Some of the politics might go over young heads, but they will see a woman on stage being strong and powerful, and while that’s a political statement, they realise they too can be strong rather than a ‘damsel in distress’.

“Little Mermaid is a genuine love story that in our version has an unconventional ending, where the world under the water is one of fluid gender. The 1950s’ setting emphasises the difference between the world beneath the waves and the stylised world on land of women with tiny waists and men with big shoulders.”

The casting has led to a swapping of skills. “It’s a circus show, first; a musical, second; acting, third,” says Poppy. “In the cast, five of them are circus performers, two of them, actor-musicians. We’ve trained the circus artists to act, and the actor-musicians have been trained in circus,” says Poppy. “Among the company, we even have a concert-level violinist who works as an aerial harness act too! Fantastic!”

Metta’s Little Mermaid turns York Theatre Royal’s main house into a circus ring from Wednesday to Saturday, 7pm and 3pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatre royal.co.uk