The Mermaid, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

As the mermaid swims to the surface, we see and hear her breaking through the water. A wide wooden platform lowers - the deck of a ship, the surface of the waves. Melinda Kinnaman's Mermaid bobs up and down, climbing and sinking back. Each time, the sound changes: we hear the water rushing in her ears, then the lap and ripple of waves.

This Mermaid, a collaboration between Danish theatre company Kaleidoskop and Swedish Cirkus Cirkör, is appealingly staged. Jaunty sailors turn backflips, the Sea Witch grows and shrinks. The weakness is the storytelling, overshadowed by the set pieces.

Director Katrine Wiedemann has returned to Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale: no Disney embellishments, no happy endings. ("So does the little mermaid die in this one?" I heard a child ask, cheerfully, on the way in.) The Mermaid will give up her home, her life with her mermaid sisters, even her voice, in the hope of winning her human prince. Her tail is cut into legs; walking on land is like stepping on sharp blades. She will die if her prince marries someone else.

Andersen's characters have compelling inner lives, in a story full of fears and longings, of implicit sexuality. Wiedemann and her cast miss those depths. Kinnaman's Mermaid and Dag Andersson's Prince are too thinly characterised. This rather long production lacks urgency.

But it's an imaginative staging. Mikael Sylvest's gorgeous lighting sends ripples of green through underwater scenes. On land, the pale light suggests a northern sun. Aerialist mermaids swim on ropes, winding and wriggling.

Mia Stensgaard dresses the mermaids in white shorts, with bottom frills hinting at fins. They have no literal tails, but often hold their legs together, feet turned out. When the Mermaid rescues the Prince from drowning, she tweaks at his legs in surprise, opening and closing them.

The Sea Witch crouches on another dancer's shoulders. As both dip and straighten, she seems to change size - towering over the Mermaid, or sidling up to her. The tail-cutting could be more frightening, but Siri Hamari's Sea Witch is full of bright malice.

Where Wiedemann works best is in her variations on Andersen. Her sailor scenes are an immediate hit - with very Jean Paul Gaultier sailors, dressed in stripy tops and pompom hats. The wooden deck sways under their feet, rocking in the sea, then tilting violently for the storm.

Until 7 January. Box office 08703 800 400