Three shows, two days – Unfortunate, Sugar Baby and Welcome to the Jungle

It’s my birthday week and so far it’s been a packed one, full of great shows and good company.

Tuesday I was at Northern Stage to see Fat Rascals’ production Unfortunate, a delightfully irreverent and rude take on the Little Mermaid, told from the perspective of Ursula. I was planning to do a full review of this, but since the lead actor Elliotte Williams-N’Dure was unable to perform (although writer / director Robyn Grant did an admirable job of standing in), I think it’s a little unfair to judge the production without its lead in place.

But even with Grant as a stand in, the production has an awful lot going for it. It’s lushly designed by Abby Clark and Cory Shipp (with lighting designer Douglas Kuhrt and puppet designers Clarke again and Hugh Purves also deserving praise). The talented cast – including Miracle Chance as a foul-mouthed Ariel, Jamie Mawson as a preening Eric, Allie Dart as Sebastian the crab and George Whitty as Triton – have a lot of fun, and although I felt it could be shorter and the direction a lot tighter, I also think that many of its flaws would be less visible with its planned lead in place, so am more minded to overlook them. Certainly, if you just want a hugely fun, riotously funny night out, you could definitely do a lot worse. (Unfortunate is on at Northern Stage until Saturday – you can get tickets here.)

And as you can see, I decided to dress for the theme in green sequins…

Wednesday was a very different day. I was excited to be invited to see Umar Butt’s new show Welcome to the Jungle at ARC Stockton (where Butt is an associate artist). I’m a big fan of both Butt – whose show Alex & Eliza I really enjoyed when I saw it at Northern Stage – and ARC. It’s a venue that I wish I could get to more (damn you, UK travel infrastructure!) as it seems to have a very strong sense of what an arts venue in a working class town should be: it programmes thoughtfully and with care and originality, always feels welcoming, offers many ‘pay what you can’ performances, and takes an inclusive, expansive approach to the arts.

Welcome to the Jungle is a sprawling, expansive story that tells the story of local girl Charlie (Liz Simmons), the daughter of a troubled mother, and Tamanna (Anisa Butt), who has been forced to flee her home in Pakistan and undertake the arduous route of a refugee to England.

Performed by its young cast (with Alberto Dumba, Juho Hankela and Robin Ravi rounding out the cast alongside Butt and Simmons) with energy and heart, it’s often messy and chaotic, playful and sometimes experimental in form – breaking the fourth wall, multi-roleing across gender and race, using video and musical storytelling (one particular moment, which I won’t spoil, was so unexpected and poignant I had to stop myself from crying).

In places it is very funny, in others hard-hitting or heartbreaking, it doesn’t sugar coat the difficulties faced by immigrants and refugees, while also not pretending that everyone born to this country lives a life of ease and joy – and, crucially, it never loses sight of the fact that everyone in the story is a person, with all the light and dark, hardship and pleasures that entails.

It’s a new, short-run production (on at ARC for two days before heading to The Dukes in Lancaster), and before it tours more widely it could definitely be tightened up: there are times when the parallel narratives feel too disparate, and the energy sags in places.

But overall, this is a heartfelt, audience pleasing show that tackles important but well-trodden subjects in a way that feels fresh and immediate.

Third up – having been blessed by the train gods so I was able to get back from Stockton on time – was Sugar Baby at Alphabetti. I wasn’t sure I’d like this – it looked a little laddish for my taste – but actually it turned out to be both very funny and engaging, helped by tight direction from Natasha Haws and a standout performance by Ben Gettins. I’ll link to the full review here when it’s live, but you can book tickets for the 3 week run here:

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