Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical

29 September-7 October, Aubyn Live Theatre
By Anna Soutar

The obligatory entry on social media ‘What I Did in the Holidays’ could read “Hello Everybody, I have been really busy these holidays. Me and about 30 of my friends worked hard for ten days, or actually evenings (because we started at our usual bedtime). We ran around a lot, singing songs we had practised for weeks and then danced all together. We had special costumes and lots of people came to watch us. You have to know a lot of stuff.”

Put like that, these kids have been taking part in some whacky sport or ceremonial routine. At bed time? An audience? Learning stuff?

It certainly seems unconventional, similar but not the same as some sort of children’s sport. And it is. It requires discipline, teamwork, an understanding of age-old conventions and skills, a stretching of the imagination and the body: in a word, stagecraft. These children, at the Aubyn Street Theatre, have been appearing in a Broadway Junior Musical, based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Ugly Duckling, called “Honk!”

They’ve been learning about theatrical devices like imaginary bodies of water, like mist, like keeping in formation. They’ve been dealing with a stage crowded with obstacles, stormy rain and the snow poor Ugly has to traverse at one point in the story. They’ve been learning how to deliver and enjoy jokes with an audience: timing is everything.

I am here as a commentator to cultural endeavour, and this is my one grumble: I do resist the piano’s need to be so acoustically dominant that we cannot hear the children’s voices. It’s common to most performances I’ve seen in recent years, and especially irritating when the pianist can’t resist adding in twiddly bits and generally showing off (although this was not the case here, Jo Ramsay was most child friendly, nursing along the singers, repeating cue chords until the singer had recovered the moment). But that classroom piano is a demanding animal: “Here I am, listen to the note!” it says. Surely an alternative instrument could be used to help out, not crowd out, children’s voices.

Individual performances would be hard to pick out from the very big cast, but mention must be made of the character of the Duck Mum who was in most of the scenes, carried several long – almost aria-like songs – Jessica Valentine. Hers was the corner-stone for all the action of the story of poor Ugly, the misfit son she had to protect against all manner of terrible happenstance. Then there was Drake, left behind like many Dads to deal with the ducklings while Mum Duck rushes off to search for dopey Ugly. The drake picks up clothes, puts little ones to bed, does all the chores he had hitherto left to his partner. “Why Do We Put Ourselves through it?” he (Oscar Campbell) asks, something the adult audience could recognise.

The cast was strongest in the ensemble moments; the ‘Wild Goose Chase’ with the squadron of geese was disciplined vigorous and delightful. As was the tadpole’s synchronised routine in the lily pads, those little froglets (all of seven-years-old) well led by big Bullfrog Anton Hosken.

The Cat, and Ugly himself, or Fletcher Masterton and Alex Dubery, were very confident on stage, and the action scene in Cat’s kitchen – when the decision to make Duck a la Orange is made and Ugly gets the message things might not be quite safe for a young bird – was full of laughs and what theatre people call ‘business’.

The sets and props were thoughtfully created so the youngsters could carry out scene changes smoothly. They evoked simple storybook cutouts. The nest, a very plausible weave of twigs, and the mechanics of getting four ducklings and one cygnet hatching was well handled. When it was time for Ugly to emerge as a beautiful, grown swan the moment earned a well-deserved “Ahhh!” from the audience.  The costumes on the whole evoked the birds they portrayed and several of the children carried off very convincing waddles and Kermit-like leg action: the Bullfrog particularly. The flight of geese looked satisfyingly ‘goosey’ in their grey livery.

This is not grand opera with all the stops pulled outs and years of training in the voice. This is children in their school holidays, working at singing, dancing and entertaining. It is team work and footwork and minding those littler than yourself. It is a work-in-progress with a mixed team with a range of ages and shapes. Calling all small animals and birds who like to sing and dance, go along to the Aubyn Live Theatre and check out the next chance to play the sport of THEATRE!

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