Writer: Emma Reeves
Director: Wendy Harris
Designer: Catherine Chapman
Composer: Tayo Akinbode
Movement: Holly Irving
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Ten minutes before the start a young man in nondescript grey sits strumming his ukulele while the birds sing and a more colourful chap buzzes a dragonfly around the trees and plants of the attractively improvised-looking set. After a while the first man starts strolling around the Theatre Royal Studio, chatting to the audience and inviting the children to have a go on the uke. Then he’s joined by a bustling little woman in flyaway specs dragging a trolley with an enormous egg in it. Lucky audience members have a chance to examine the egg. Thus the audience of three-year-olds upwards is introduced to tutti frutti’s version of Ugly Duckling.
Emma Reeves and Wendy Harris simplify the narrative from the Hans Andersen original, though the trajectory from much-mocked misfit to “I’m a swan!” is the same. But they add in two irreproachable moral themes, often repeated, never laboured: the importance of family and the value of everyone, no matter how different. The mother duck (Mum) is a key figure and Ugly, flying the world as a swan, returns to visit – and why not? After all, she’s the one who has put over the message that some ducklings are big, some are small, we are all what we are.
Not that moral messages are the main thrust of the play. This is an inspired and imaginative piece of story-telling, with good, well-varied songs, charming visuals and some delightful physical comedy. Swans swirl like banners, Mum frantically chases toy ducks manipulated by mischievously quacking actors, winter comes via scraps of “snow” and strips of white material retrieved from a litter bin.
As Ugly Danny Childs greets the world with an amiable perplexity reminiscent of Eric Morecambe. He moves with a comically clumsy athleticism as he fails to master the art of acting like a duck – and various other animals, for that matter – and swirls about with unexpected grace when given the chance for a swim. Duck pond or Swan Lake?
In the central section, Ugly leaves his family and meets up with various other animals who try to teach him the way to behave to get on in life. Daniel Naddafy, a sniffily superior elder brother to Ugly, snaps aggressively as Goose and slinks dismissively as Cat, while Maeve Leahy takes a break from the harassed and sympathetic Mum to fawn in “Love me, please” attitudes as Dog.
At the end Ugly’s bewilderment at becoming a swan ultimately gives way to confidence, all is harmony and the rather bumptious cockney chief Swan (Naddafy) joins Mum and Ugly in a celebratory song.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Brian Slater Photography