“Did you leave him in the egg too long?”
Two years ago, the Tabard Theatre revived Stiles and Drewe’s Just So for their festive show and it is to these composers that they return in 2012 with this production of Honk! A musical adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Ugly Duckling, it follows the fortunes of a duckling, cruelly nicknamed Ugly by all around him save his mother, who looks different to the other ducks in the yard. When he ends up lost, frightened and alone, he is forced to make a personal odyssey but even as he is constantly threatened by a voracious cat and scary big humans, he also finds that there’s a big wide world outside of the barnyard where others are not quite so quick to judge.
The score is one of Stiles and Drewe’s most accomplished and lyrically, it has a deceptive simplicity which allows for layers of interpretation making it an ideal family show. Joe Sterling’s nerdish Ugly goes on a powerful journey of self-discovery – characterised by moving renditions of songs like ‘Different’ and ‘Lost’ – even before his revelatory transformation; Kathryn Rutherford’s compassionate Ida is a beautiful study in maternal determination; and even in the unlikely pairing of a cat and a chicken as flatmates, there’s a lovely message of tolerance, especially when it is performed with such show-stealing verve as by Kate Scott and Lydia Grant.
These performances work because they focus so strongly on character, but making it truly children-friendly, the story also works on a straight farmyard fable level. And here, Madeleine Loftin’s production stumbles a little as she has her actors occasionally dipping into animal mannerisms and without fully committing to this behavioural style throughout the whole show, it comes across as clunky and unnecessary and ultimately rather awkward. Other elements felt slightly off too: Mark White is good as the military commander leader of the geese but feels miscast against Rutherford as Ugly’s father Drake; the sound levels frequently veered to the oppressively loud which obscured much of the lyrical clarity from the ensemble members; and Christopher Hone’s set design doesn’t always quite feel robust enough to cope with the amount of clambering it has to put up with.
So something of a mixed bag: though there are aspects that aren’t necessarily that strong, there are also festive treats aplenty in here, particularly Tim Oxbrow’s feline villain almost pantomime-like in his mischievous machinations and it is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to revisit the work of Stiles and Drewe, one of our strongest creative partnerships in British musical theatre.