Theatre review: Ethel Mermaid: Songs in the Key of Sea

An amazing splash of talent at Melbourne Fringe Festival.

In residency at ‘Neptune’s Palace’, Ethel Mermaid is the brainchild of Amanda Buckley. In reality, the location of The Butterfly Club’s basement was perfect for providing the ambience for Songs in the Key of Sea, a 60-minute retelling of the underwater talent’s life story. 

Alongside Buckley is Jamie Burgess as the affectionately nicknamed ‘Wet Willy’ – a drowned (British?) sailor who’s cursed to perform on the keys alongside Ethel for eternity. The two pair off in a similar fashion to a lounge singer and musician in the dawdling hours of a bar, with Burgess playing ambient piano jazz in the quieter moments. 

Despite this laid-back description, Buckley was full of humour, and the audience reflected it, laughing at every joke and prop presented. She’d barely catch a breath, using intervals to sip from her shell-shaped drink bottle. She paraded around with lights on her chest, performing a song from the musical Gypsea (there were amazing ocean puns used heavily throughout the entire performance), singing all three parts – pulling out a horn to play and, at one point, cuddling the skeletal remains of a sailor she once romanced. 

Buckley touched on and critiqued a range of current issues related to the character of Ethel –the state of rubbish in the water and the damaging effect of cruise ships, making a joke that, despite all of it, she’s ‘still here’.  

At times the performance pushed the PG-13 rating, with risqué humour and innuendos, but not in a negative way.

The performance ended in a medley of songs that do or can be twisted to reference words or phrases associated with the ocean: ‘Yellow Submarine’, ‘Rolling in the Deep’, ‘[Shell]ebration and ‘Gold[fish]finger.’  

Even with jabs at Disney, the content was still very much Australian – with Ethel claiming she was the ‘reason Harold Holt disappeared’ – on brand for the narrative, and yet distinctly true to the audience.  

This show is a testament to Melbourne Fringe Festival’s attempts to push Australian performances and stories out to a broader audience and for someone who’d never attended Fringe before, it was the perfect introduction.  

Read: Theatre review: OzAsia Festival, SNAP

I can’t wait to see what Buckley has in store next, both generally and with Ethel Mermaid.

Ethel Mermaid: Songs in the Key of the Sea
Butterfly Club, Melbourne

Created and performed by Amanda Buckley
Musical Direction: Jamie Burgess

Ethel Mermaid was performed as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival from 17-23 October.

Ella Pilson is an author-in-progress based in Naarm (Melbourne). She was shortlisted for the  Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers and is currently studying the Associate Degree of  Professional Writing & Editing at RMIT. Her opinion pieces have been published in RMIT’s Catalyst.  You can find her on Twitter at @EllaPilson.