Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh – until 5 September 2015
Boasting a succession of well-choreographed ensemble moments, LYAMC’s production of Honk!, at the Church Hill Theatre to Saturday, also hits strong notes on the vocal front.
This is George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s updating of the Hans Christian Anderson favourite, The Ugly Duckling. And it is a good updating too: the London premiere beat both the Lion King and Mama Mia to best new musical gong at the Oliviers.
It’s a great show a for a youth company. There are plenty of strong musical numbers and a large cast to flaunt around the duck pond where the signet known as Ugly, hatches out into a duck’s nest.
Not to mention excellent opportunities for even bigger dance routines as the reviled youngster is inveigled away by a hungry cat and goes off on a succession of adventures, meeting geese and bullfrogs before it all ends with with fluffy moral about tolerance.
The Lothian Youth Arts and Musicals Company certainly set about the task with vigour and style. The orchestra, under the direction of James McCutcheon, get straight in amongst it, and provide a constantly vibrant support from the pit.
Marc Mackinnon, taking over the director’s duties from Malcolm J Burnett who stands down after 18 years, brings his 76 strong ensemble out into action right from the opening number, A Poultry Tale.
There is lovely choral feel when the whole company is on stage, thanks no doubt to strong work from vocal coach Susan French. Indeed, this is a company which consistently nails it in vocal terms, from the principals right down through the cast.
Mackinnon uses the opener well to establish the whole duck pond mentality of a domestic drama with neighbourhood feel, thanks to strong central performances and a succession of nosy poultry characters poking their beaks in at every opportunity.
Ross Jamieson’s Drake struts around self importantly – except when a spot of parenting is called for. While his long-suffering partner, Innes Goodall’s Ida, is just full of the joys of what the emergence of her brood will hold, despite one strangely oversized egg in her nest.
Behind them stalks James Rennie’s deliciously sneering Cat, bequiffed and eyelinered up as if he were about to start a New Romantic revival, not snack on a tender portion of juicy duckling when it appears.
With such a large cast, there are plenty of young ducklings to welcome into the world. Fiona Wilson as know-it-all neighbour, Maureen the Moorhen, is ready on hand to do so, as the 15-strong brood, all bickering and jostling and answering back, scoot off with Drake for a first swim.
It’s with the eventual emergence of Ugly that the show begins to find its own wings. Cameron Kilgore has just the right level of puzzled bemusement for the role, a sonorous “honk” when his siblings all quack, and a singing voice to match Goodall’s.
And when they set off for the water, the choreography begins to fly. Their duet Hold Your Head Up High, is backed by a succession of watery-ballet dance sequences which allow them to concentrate on the music while the dance routines create duck-pond environments, above and below water.
Co-choreographers Fiona Jackson and Louise Williamson have done a fantastically inventive job here. It’s repeated, if in a very different style, when they bring a distinctly Busby Berkeley feel to the packed stage with a rotating star sequence when the lost Ugly falls in with a squadron of geese.
It is great to see a young director coming up through the LYAMC ranks and there is much which Marc Mackinnon gets right. But in comparison to the vibrancy of the ensemble choreography, the individual movement is rather more pedestrian – and not always convincingly blocked out. While the attention to basic stagecraft is not always as detailed as it might be.
Some performers are obviously easily at home on stage. Michael Barker, who plays both the know-it-all goose, Greylag, and the comedy-loving Bullfrog is superb in both roles. Indeed, with Katie Williamson spot on as his flight-attendant Dot, whose ability and knowledge are far above her role, the goose sequences work a treat.
Both performers succeed in bringing a level of physicality to their characters which is not always apparent elsewhere. And both know where they should be on the stage.
This is not to diminish the other performers, who bring different skills – Ellie de Marco and Orla Mcdevitt as the unlikely domesticated hen-cat combination, for example, who have a great sense of comedy. Or Goodall, who finds huge emotional truth when she mourns the loss of her son when all around are still mocking his looks. Or indeed David Allen, who works the comedy as the preposterous Turkey.
A strong, entertaining production, which has clever touches – such as the appearance of the swans through a gauze – and copes well with a huge cast.
Marc Mackinnon has certainly made a bright start as LYAMC director, but the show itself is still a little gangly on its legs and could certainly tighten up on its attention to the detail.
Running time 2 hrs 30 min with one interval.
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wed 2 – Sat 5 September 2015
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