Union Theatre, London – until 22 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Terry Eastham
Hans Christian Andersen first published “The Ugly Duckling” on the 11 November 1843 and in 1952, Danny Kaye appeared on-screen singing the story of the Ugly Duckling in the movie of Hans’ life. In 1993, songwriting duo Anthony Drewe and George Stiles produced a musical version of the story and now, in 2017, their show, Honk! Has returned to London and taken up residence in the Union Theatre.
It is springtime and in a rural farm, the feathered inhabitants are getting ready to meet the new generation. For Ida (Ellie Nunn) this means sitting for hours on end on the nest while her partner Drake (Leon Scott) wanders about enjoying himself. However, everything in the nest is not rosy as, along with the normal looking eggs, there is a larger one that definitely doesn’t look like the others. Drake is convinced it’s a Turkey egg but as far as Ida is concerned, the egg is a duck – just a slightly odd one.
Eventually the eggs hatch and three lovely little fluffy ducks appear quacking their way into the world. As Drake takes them off for their first swimming lesson, Ida is left alone with the different egg. Suddenly it bursts open and out pops the newest of the brood (Liam Vincent-Kilbride). He is tall, covered in grey feathers and instead of a dignified ‘quack’ emits a loud Honk. Acknowledging that her new ‘chick’ is different, Ida still loves him and starts teaching him the ways of the duck. He takes to swimming instantly and, if anything, is better at it than his mother. Ida also introduces her son to the rest of the farm who are disparaging about his looks and size and they generally shun him. As Ida is distracted, the cat (Sam Sugarman) sidled up to Ugly – as he is now known – and offers to be his friend. Pleased to have met someone who likes him, Ugly goes off with the cat and thus begins his adventures in the world which starts with an orange and culminates in love.
There used to be a tradition when I was a kid that, around the Easter holidays, the cinemas would take down the normal films and put on child and family friendly movies over the holiday period. OK, this was back in the days when we had independent cinemas and multiplex was the name of a villain from a distant galaxy, but it was something we always looked forward to. I say this because it feels like the Union Theatre has done just the same with Honk! This is a really lovely show that all the family could go and see and thoroughly enjoy.
I was concerned that the story of the ugly duckling is quite short and how would the writers manage to make a full length musical out of it, but I needn’t have worried. The addition of extras characters and obstacles for Ugly to overcome works really well. So for example, in Act II, Ugly encounters a domesticated cat – Queenie (Emma Jane Morton) – and chicken – Lowbutt (Emily Goad) – a sort of animal version of Hinge and Brackett. He also runs into an almost show stopping bullfrog (Robert Pearce) who does much to restore Ugly’s self esteem.
If we were looking for deep meaning to Honk! Then there are plenty. There’s nothing wrong with being different. Nothing trumps a mother’s love. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Believe in yourself. The road may be rocky but the rewards will be worth it. Seriously, there’s a whole collection of life lessons in the course of the running time. Lots of topics for conversation with the ankle biters on your way home afterwards.
Alternatively, you could just marvel at the performance. Actors that act, sing, dance and play musical instruments (under MD Oli Rew) – sometimes all at once – Emily Bestow’s lovely rustic set used to great effect by Director Andy Room. Rosemary Elliott-Dance’s great costumes, or Tim Deiling’s highly effective lighting. Or the truly wonderful puppets by Phoebe Hill. All told, Honk! Is a great production. My one criticism is that the acoustics of the theatre sometimes meant I missed some of the lyrics, especially in songs where different characters were singing different lines.
Ultimately, Honk! Really surprised me. Furthermore this is a great production of a lovely old story that works really well to bring the tale up to date. It’ll guarantee any parent a couple of hours respite from the kid’s constant demands for chocolate, and bring a new meaning to family time.