Mermaid Show review by Charlie Levine
Reading the press release before attending Ann Liv Young’s ‘Mermaid Show’, I thought I knew what to expect. I was ready for the karaoke, I was aware I may be splashed with water, and I was prepared for the Mermaid to terrorise her audience by eating raw fish in their faces. But Young’s Mermaid was more than just the press release, and I was not equipped for such an onslaught.
When arriving at the Q Club, a converted Methodist Church in central Birmingham, there was already a queue out of the door. The show was running late as people in yellow Fierce t-shirts ran frantically up and down the stairs with full, then empty, buckets of water. The anticipation mounted while people whispered rumours of what they were about to see. When the doors were eventually opened, we all confidently entered the impressive Church. This confidence didn’t last long.
The bloated Mermaid lay, vacant, in a blow up plastic kiddies pool. Two men, one dressed as a sailor, sat relaxed by her side. A young girl, also dressed as a sailor, eventually joined them and the show began. The three sailors told and sung a pop tale of a former sailor, now passed. The Mermaid stopped each of the three songs sung twice, as she was unhappy with the sound. You could not hear everything she said, but you could pick up the odd ‘this isn’t good enough, how can I work like this’’ The audience laughed at each stop/strop, but the main giggle was supplied by the main sailor’s hairy bottom, that was exposed every time he bent over due to a very evident rip in his trousers.
This softened the audience, luring us into their world; we were on board and we were laughing. When Young finally sat up, she mimed expressively to part of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ soundtrack. The modern fantasy of the sweet mermaid lived; but this did not last for long.
The song finished, the music began to pulse loudly, and out flopped Young from her steaming pool. Her helpers threw water over her whilst she aggressively pulled herself grotesquely into the audience, tearing at a raw fish, spitting out the contents into audience members faces. People scattered; they literally ran to the other side of the auditorium. One man tried to confront her, but he was restrained.
I cannot fully explain the atmosphere in the room. My adrenaline was pumping, even though I was sitting safely on the opposite side of the grand church. Directly in front of me was carnage and I was cemented to my spot. People sitting either side of me shouted to one another over the thumping music, ‘should we move’ What if she comes over here’’ I couldn’t have moved if I’d have wanted to. My heart raced, I was terrified; it was absolutely thrilling.
Young finally stopped, after what felt like hours or maybe just seconds of pure panic and mania. She returned to her arena, but people did not return to their seats - just in case.
What Young was doing was to question the passivity of the audience. We were now the main focus, and how we reacted to her and her co-performers become the point. The story was no longer a look at the myth of the mermaid, but rather how an audience interacts when confronted by a vile performer. Performance history dictates an audience who politely watches in silence, but Young literally drags you into the action.
This revaluation of the audience member’s purpose in performance is new; it feels punk and it feels dangerous. Making the audience a more integral part of the project shifts the power. Although we are encouraged to interact with Young, we can choose not to. The people who ran to the people frozen to their spots - we have the power. In typical performance fashion, we merely witness, with Young we partake. ‘Mermaid Show’ felt like the beginning of a revolution, of feminist issues provoked by Disney’s re-imagined The Little Mermaid, by pushing the boundaries of participation and diving straight into the taboo of sexual confrontation. Young’s topless body, soaked in water, thrusting herself into the crowd, biting into a potentially seen phallic fish and spitting it out; Young in control, but again - we had the power. Young perhaps not wanting to shock, therefore, but wanting to indoctrinate us into her group, to transform us into mermaid’s.
The rest of the performance was all a bit of a blur from then on. It concluded with all cast members lying on the floor, playing with dolls whilst telling a beautiful story of an old lady. Of how her young twin sister got taken by the sea and turned into a mermaid on Easter Sunday. Of how she went in to save her, but the sea, confused, did not claim her as well, and the lady was now blessed with eternal youth.
The rollercoaster of emotions felt during this performance were extreme. Laughter at the freak show mermaid, sweet sighs to the Disney form, complete fear at the raging historic mermaid, then nostalgia and calm to the filmic tale. Immediately afterwards, I wasn’t sure if I enjoyed it. When I woke the next day, I still felt exhilarated and wanted to tell everyone about it. The mermaid myth, therefore, confidently carried on via Young’s electric performance.