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Merboy by Campfire Theatre at Omnibus Theatre

Fantastical with more than a tinge of harsh reality, the title character in Merboy (Kemi Clarke) is faced with what is, at face value, a reasonable challenge. He’s given a thousand chances to achieve something (to say exactly what that ‘something’ is would be giving too much away), or otherwise becomes the property of the Seawitch (Ralph Bogard), who claims not to be a witch at all, but rather a ‘queen’. Gloriously over-the-top with a soundtrack of songs from a generation ago, performed and danced to with verve by the four-strong cast, the storyline itself comes across as something from yesteryear too.

Merboy by Campfire TheatreUltimately, it has little to offer in terms of fresh insight – the journey Merboy undertakes is rife with homophobic taunts and insults during his formative years, presumably from the school playground, and his mother (Yasmin Dawes) is of the opinion that to be gay is a sin, and Merboy can simply ‘repent’ (whatever that really means) and live as a straight young man instead. There’s resistance and refusal to comply – of course there is – and while the final outcome of the story is sufficiently pleasing, it feels like yet another walk down a very well-trodden path.

Much of the show’s enjoyment, then, is in witnessing Merboy’s search for a partner, a coming-of-age tale in which the learning curve is steep. Everyone, y’see, has their own needs, wants and preferences, and it isn’t as easy to find a compatible match as those advertisements for online dating apps and websites would have people believe. Not that Merboy indulges in swiping left or right – this production is far more creative than that – and it is quite possible that somewhere along the way, he might have found himself in an abusive situation, although the play chooses not to portray such a scenario on stage. It does not explore the psychological impact of rejection either, but this means the show never gets sentimental or pitiful, laced as it is with songs like Donna Summer’s’ ‘I Feel Love’.

Gasping from some members of the audience arose instead out of some graphic details of sexual exploits – described rather than re-enacted (it’s a play, not a blue movie). There’s some sprightly movement in certain scenes (Carl Harrison is named as movement director, so I have avoided using the word ‘choreography’). Clarke’s Merboy was moving his legs around so frantically at one point that it reminded me, rightly or wrongly, of Riverdance. Completing the set of on-stage characters is the Sailor (Anthony Psaila), who arguably gets some of the best (that is, both humorous and perceptive) lines in the show – I liked a very telling inability to distinguish between actual friends and Instagram followers, not having met many of the latter in person.

The song and dance elements in this production are appealing and staged remarkably well. Some of the poetry was a delight to listen to. But I found it difficult to connect with the production or feel properly engaged with what was going on – perhaps the other-worldliness proved to be too detaching.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Marooned out at sea
and the greedy moon is fat
Fed by the tide
to show far and wide
That I have grown.

The fantasy world of fairytale meets the dramatic yearnings of 1960s girl band music and the intense depths of gay shame in Merboy, a poetic and queer retelling of The Little Mermaid.

Using verse, storytelling and lip-synching, Merboy tells the story of a sexual awakening of mixed heritage queer boy navigating school homophobia and the brutal complexities of gay scene.

A musical chorus of drag sisters supports this fun romp into the true meaning behind Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale.

MERBOY
PRESENTED BY CAMPFIRE THEATRE
A poetic, queer retelling of The Little Mermaid.
21 FEB – 4 MAR 2023
https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/

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