The need to tell gay coming-of-age / coming-out stories never goes away. However, it has to be said, there can often be a certainly predictability in such dramas.
Not so with Liam Sesay‘s semi-autobiographical Merboy. Instead he offers a highly original and effective work that reframes Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to convey the journey of a mixed heritage young man from his queer sexual awakening to trying to find his place in the gay world. Did we mention that his odyssey is accompanied by a fantastic score of 1960s girl group songs lip-synced by a back-combed trio of drag sisters?
Told in beautifully rhythmical verse, the show begins with the unnamed central character being born in rain and his mother’s tears, making him wet from birth. His first awareness of his otherness, of his Mer-self, comes at the age of four not from within but without with taunts of “sissy” and “girly”.
As the years pass, he has to learn to navigate the increasing brutality of school homophobia by attempting to hide his true self. Seeking refuge at home, he hears his Aunties listening to records of The Shangri-Las, The Supremes and Shirley Bassey and is drawn to the siren call and hyper-drama stylings of the music. From this, he conjures three imagined dream sirens who will accompanying him on his voyage of exploration. Mostly these fabulous creatures will act as something of a Greek chorus, reflecting emotions and feelings he cannot yet articulate through the medium of lip-synced song.
Sesay’s script conveys his familiar wild, giddy, terrifying trip of queer discovery. The otherness at nine, the stirring at “man scent” of a teacher at twelve, the first awareness (where else but) at a swimming pool and the call of “the sea” mingled with the fear of the “blood virus” proclaimed by The Sun to the point of self-blaming at the tender age of 14. “As adults stood by”. It’s the detail and confessional honesty in Sesay’s writing that elevates the emotional stakes and makes Merboy so relatable.
When he discovers a bigger pond, in the form of gay discos, filled with sailors and the promise of love and understanding, he cannot wait to dive in. The baseline throbs of 70s disco and Donna Summer’s I Feel Love momentarily shut out the 60s soundtrack. It feels new and vivid and fresh. In this woozy underworld of wonder, he alights on one “sailor”, the epitome of masculinity, only to discover that he himself is not a sailor, but is a merboy.
Against the musical accompaniment of The Marvelettes’ Too Many Fish In The Sea, there is an ending to innocence for Merboy. His mother declares that this disgusting boy has disgraced the family while fretting about the the diseases he may acquire by his behaviours. Simultaneously, his fellow Merboys explain the rules of the gay game: that Merboy has to talk less, feel less, suppress any tears and use the word “mate” more. To the strains of Fever, he enters into a dark pact with a sea witch to become a “sailor” on the understanding that he could not return to life as it was previously.
While the reframing of The Little Mermaid narrative works mostly – a love that is out of reach, a deal to become something they are not, abandoning the life and their voice, a painful journey followed by giving up all dreams in a self-sacrifice to be true to himself – there are moments where parallels to the original fairy tale are somewhat waterlogged by the sheer scope of all the writer has to say. Gay shame (internal and external), familial disgrace, a sense of self-worth all become barriers that Merboy (and so many others) must navigate. Failing to conform to the expected heterosexual stereotype can readily lead to unexpected pressures to conform to renewed gay stereotypes.
Ultimately, Merboy is a clarion call to non-conformity. It celebrates a “failure” to fit into expected roles but also a refusal to conform to artificial expectations of how to be LGBTQ+. Parlaying RuPaul’s timeless advice, “If you can’t love yourself…”, Merboy’s journey is an emotional one of self-discovery and self-acceptance.
Kemi Clarke‘s performance as Merboy is nothing short of wonderful. There is an honesty and a vulnerability to his portrayal that is irresistible. Never over-insistent in any part of the role, Clarke delivers comedy, drama and movement with ease. In short, he exudes a star quality that commands the stage. Director Scott Le Crass, fresh from successes with Harry’s Christmas, Buff and West End transfer Rose, seems to have the Midas touch at the moment, being able to draw emotional and evocative performances from his lead performers, Merboy being no exception.
Yasmin Dawes, Ralph Bogard and Anthony Psaila all play dual roles. The three play the Dream Sirens who lip-sync classic 60s songs such as Dressed In Black and Past, Present & Future by The Shangri-Las and (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry by Darlene Love. While they look the part, some of their lip-sync performances veer more towards Sashay territory rather than Shantay. Bogard impresses much more with a delicious turn as the Sea Witch, channeling just enough of Disney’s Ursula while adding his own spin. Dawes is terrific as Merboy’s mother, unflinching at venting the familial disgust, but layered as added personal motivation is revealed.
While some small parts of the script perhaps need refining and the production would benefit from a final polish, Liam Sesay’s Merboy offers an imaginative, honest and moving deep dive into gay culture and, in Kemi Clarke, has discovered a star in its leading man.
A fin-tastic, original, entertaining LGBTQ tale ★★★★ (4 stars)