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Musical parody Unfortunate tells the previously untold story of Ursula the Sea Witch - the underwater baddie in hit Disney movie The Little Mermaid. Described as a tell-all tale of sex, sorcery and suckers, the show is rated 16-plus and is currently touring the UK - stopping off at two Midlands theatres along the way. Shawna Hamic - best known from award-winning Netflix series Orange Is The New Black - plays Ursula. She recently spoke to What’s On about starring as her favourite Disney villain...

Unfortunate is a theatre success story. First staged at Edinburgh Festival in 2019, the quirky musical has gone from strength to strength. When it toured five years ago, it played small-scale venues - including Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Studio - but now the production has been expanded and re-imagined as a full-scale musical.

Inspired by Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Unfortunate: The Untold Story Of Ursula The Sea Witch puts Ursula in the driving seat, telling her saga - and it’s a very different fairytale from the one people are used to!

The show stars actress Shawna Hamic as Ursula, performing alongside River Medway as Ariel. Probably best known to readers as prison guard ‘Ginger’ Copeland in the hit Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, Shawna couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the sea witch.

“When I was first approached about it, I was really excited because Ursula has always been my favourite Disney villain,” she says. “She’s the bad guy, and who doesn’t love the bad guy? But also, I loved the fact that she represented something that I was in real life - a big girl who was powerful and yet fun and sassy. While we think of villains as bad people, it didn’t seem like she was that bad. Just to get a chance to portray my favourite villain is a dream come true.”

By putting Ursula in the centre of the narrative, Unfortunate allows audiences to understand her past and her motivation.

“The story is told through her point of view -  she’s the narrator as well as the lead character. She speaks to the audience and wants to really show her side of the situation made famous by the Disney movie. She wants it to be what really happened from her perspective, not just seen through the eyes of the heroine that you know.

“So it’s the things that happened to her and caused her to be the way she is, and why she reacted the way she did. What caused her to really step into herself as a magical being. It’s a love story - she gets the tragedy that happens to lots of people in life, and it makes her more recognisable in everyday life. We are shaped by the situations that we live through - and that can be true for our favourite ‘octowoman’ as well.

“We like to cast people as the villain, to see them only one way, and now we get to see Ursula as fully formed. We see her as a kid, we see her as a teenager, we see her on the cusp of greatness, then we see her as everyone recognises her. It’s very much like Wicked - that same exploration of why she is the way she is. When we know that, we can accept that she’s not just the villain.”

In encouraging audiences to see beyond their preconceptions of Ursula, Shawna hopes the show will also inspire them to think a bit more about other people - and themselves.

“As a person who is large, as a fat woman, I want to be seen as more than just the funny woman or the sidekick that’s sassy. I feel the same about Ursula being a villain - she’s the one-dimensional bad guy who everyone has to hate. I don’t think anyone is fully good or fully bad; I feel like, in life, we each have different levels and extremes within us. Exploring Ursula’s story specifically allows us to explore the stories of the people around us. It may give us an opportunity to see someone in a different light who we have cast as one-dimensional in our mind. While that seems deep for a panto-comedy-musical, I feel it’s part of what we try and explore.

“I think Unfortunate is a show that also allows you to look at yourself and rejoice in who you are completely. We want you to leave celebrating who you are, knowing that you are perfect the way you are, even if society doesn’t want you to believe that. The way you look, who you love, how you see the world - you are unique, and unique is important and should be celebrated.”

Written by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx with music by Tim Gilvin, Unfortunate may be inspired by The Little Mermaid but it’s no children’s cartoon. The production carries an age recommendation of 16-plus - and there’s an important reason for that, says Shawna.

“Ours is an adult show - there are adult themes and adult language. And it seems that however much we warn people, there are still people who bring their children to the show. So we have five and six-year-olds and seven-year-olds and 12-year-olds in the audience! I come out and use some pretty blue language right off, and then there are adult visuals and themes. So you might have to have some awkward conversations with your children that you didn’t want to have yet, if you bring them to this show.”

Shawna is no stranger to the stage, having been in US productions of Les Misérables, 1776, Kinky Boots and The Last Ship, but this is her first UK theatre tour.

“I’ve been to London many times because I would come with my best friend and see theatre in the West End. We would spend a week or two weeks, so I’ve explored all of the touristy things of London, but I’ve never had the chance to be in London for a length of time, let alone explore the rest of the UK. So it’s a really exciting adventure that I’m on,  and what a great way to do it - working here, rather than exploring it by myself!

“I’m excited about getting to see and meet the people in all of the different tour locations. I want to see what resonates with everyone in their own towns and what makes them proud to live where they live. I want to see places that I’ve read about for my whole life or seen on TV and film but never visited.”

With a seven-month tour in the UK, there are a couple of home comforts Shawna admits to missing.

“This is going to seem so silly, but any time someone comes over, I ask them to bring some gum and also to buy a Sprite or a 7up from the airport. You guys have a sugar tax, so you use artificial sweeteners in your drinks, and I can’t have them - they make me ill - so the weirdest thing is that I ask people to bring me soda from the US!”

Unfortunate shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Thursday 11 to Saturday 13 April and at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 July.

By Diane Parkes