Creators: Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell
It might be the first story most of us hear, that of the duckling who found themselves different to the rest of their flock. With big, floppy wings, elongated feet, and a different shade of feather to their brothers and sisters. The Ugly Duckling is certainly one of the first instances we have with the concepts of acceptance and pushing against the normative ideas of appearance. Now, Edinburgh-based writers and creators Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell bring a spin to the tale, a contemporary adaptation of The Not So Ugly Duckling which brings the tale to new audiences.
Academics and storytellers know of the semi-biographical nature of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling and his struggles with his own identity. Others hold to it as an early fable on being trans. There is no definitive answer, but perhaps the beauty of the tale. We don’t know, so it can be anything and everything. Because in a world of borders and oppositional attitudes, The Ugly Duckling speaks to all of us.
Because at one point, regardless of race, age, gender, or identity – we’ve all felt ugly or alone.
A play for grownups, The Not So Ugly Duckling finds Clifford and MacDonell come together to write the story once over for a wider audience, infusing the charm of the original Hans Christian Anderson tale with more poignant queries and concepts. As two women sit on their bench overlooking the Waters of Leith, the pair remark at the shopping centre, the changing area, and of course the ducks. It spurns them to spin a tale, one with which we are familiar, but freshly hatched so to speak.
The overall narrative remains much the same, with an emphasis placed more on the emotions of the Duckling, and the growing hurt one can feel carrying the weight of isolation and feeling different from adolescence. Sat upon Ali Maclaurin’s great egg, a piece of fabric shaped as a duck egg, but bespeckled with rich azures to suggest a coastal area, The Not So Ugly Duckling may at its core be a storytelling experience, but it’s visual, particularly the disrobing costumes, is a pleasant addition.
MacDonell maintains that childlike prestige in performance, even when undertaking more cynical and promiscuous characters. It’s enrapturing at times, particularly when taking on the role of the mother duck or the more macabre human characters. There’s evident joy in the performance and storytelling aspect, but this sincerity belays a cunning and keen-eyed natured, of adapting each character to the situation – to increase the intensity of the Duckling’s situation, or to bring comfort.
Stretched their wings and flapping towards a sense of glory, Clifford bestows a sense of self within our Duckling. In moments, her performance evokes a sense of genuine belief in the words and channels the uniqueness and beauty of the show with every breath drawn, enjoying the moments of clarity – pausing both for effect, and to enhance impact, almost as if Clifford is on this journey for the first time with her audience.
Rarely does the art of storytelling adapt such a piece, so evidently meant for younger readers, into an artform of the stage which speaks to generations of people who themselves felt like the Ugly Duckling, the lame Gander or oversized Turkey. Clifford and MacDonell weave something special together, which has a calm, yet passionate pacing