Theatre review: Captain Murderer And The Morecambe Mermaid, Leeds City Varieties

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From the giant dancing fish to a pendulously-chested Fijian mermaid (half-monkey, half-fish – all woman), this production featured a fabulous range of puppets, all of which were used with imagination, humour and verve.

The puppetry gives a thrilling, shocking or hilarious edge to each vignette which made watching Captain Murderer and the Morecambe Mermaid a really enjoyable, if sometimes disturbing, experience.

The short running time also ensured this production felt fresh and lively throughout.

The world conjured up here was one of sagging seediness and haggled-over freakery, desperate and sad but also magnetically fascinating. Like tawdry punters enticed by the promise ‘Come see the freaks!’, the audience crowed and giggled at the prospect of hearing the most intimate details of the mermaid’s tale and the murderer’s horrors, not put off at all by the warning: ‘Touching costs more...’

The first half was probably the most inventively told, with John Barber taking the lead to tell the gruesome story of Captain Murderer, reproduced almost verbatim from the Charles Dickens original. It was a Bluebeard-esque yarn of cannibalism and matrimonial peril which transformed into a dark, comedic fairy tale through its macabre puppetry, delivered with unobtrusive aplomb by co-creator Lisa Howard.

At times the debauched setting and uncouth vulgarity of the alcoholic narrator and his potty-mouthed puppet daughter intruded on the narrative, but this also brought further depths of blackness to the inky-hued humour.

The second half was the most poignantly told, unfurling the tragic life story of a captured mermaid enslaved for the entertainment of dirty old men and tortured by guilty dreams of having legs – ‘like a vegetarian dreams of eating bacon butties’. Lisa Howard made for an engaging, sympathetic mermaid and dealt brilliantly with the physical restrictions of her fishy tale.

The narrative seemed to finish very abruptly, though, as if the tide was about to crash in and wash it all away. Suddenly jerked out of the freak show like a mermaid caught in a net, the evening already began to feel like a surreal dream.

Sally Hall