Based on Hans Anderson's Ugly Duckling this feathered fellow is hatched out on Hampstead Heath, appropriate for a London show, though some of the youngsters I spoke to in the interval had never been there. Their accompanying teachers were making them be a little too well behaved, insisting on hushing their excitement, but even with their enthusiasm curbed they were clearly enjoying this imaginative telling in which poor Ugly is born on stage from a giant egg and ends up on wires above our heads as a flying swan.
The approach is rather anthropomorphic - this is really a tale about human behaviour rather than that of animals, and costuming is decidedly human for character type and calls on the audience to use their imagination. Identification is guided by a skilled cast have cleverly caught species specific bird movements with arms or elbows as flapping wings, jut-jutting heads and hopping feet and hands suggesting swan necks. Preening, feeding or strutting along you can easily recognise the ducks, heron, hen and crow. Dog, cat and fox aren't quite so obvious when played on two legs but barks and meows or identification from other characters make sure we know who they are.
There are no skin suits or heavily feathered costumes, the birds and animals wear human clothes that match personality and gently suggest species and designer Louise Anne Wilson has set it on a raked disc, painted with reflected sky and clouds, with simple flown-in sceneic elements that identify rather than create locations and director Rosamunde Hutt keeps it moving, though I could wish that between them they had found a quicker way of fitting on flying gear, though seeing the mechanics does emphasis that this is theatre and the audience is expected to be complicit.
Liam Lane plays honking Ugly with his knees bent inwards and a general gawkiness that he maintains until his final transformation. (I wouldn't want to try jumping with knees like that as he does.) It's a very consistent performance. Everyone else is playing at least three and some five or more roles, all so well differentiated that the characters are never confused. I particularly liked Inika Leigh Wright's Mother Duck and Crow, Hazel Maycock's stuck up Aunty Duck (hatched in the greenhouse at Highgrove where she thought one of the princes was her mother!), and Richard Sumitro and Gbemisola Ikumelo's Geese.
There is a nice little touch of having one scene a Kenwood concert, seagulls and other birds gathering in anticipation of good pickings from concert-goers picnics and the orchestra appropriately playing music from Swan Lake, though you can't expect the seven-year-olds to pick up on that. They will certainly recognize the sibling bickering and sadly some of the bird bullying that goes on and the hurt when human parents go their separate ways.
I am not sure whether the moral of the tale quite stands as it is told here in a modern setting. Learn to be yourself, be what you feel inside you and grow up to achieve your destiny is all fine but, if wanting to fly high, float on a lake and be beautiful is your aim and your apotheosis is to be King Swan, to me that seems in danger of endorsing those children who say I want to be famous, or I want to be a celebrity without any sense of real purpose or achievement. However, for the younger children (7+) this show is mainly aimed at, it will caution the bullies and cheer the teased and bullied, encouraging them to discover themselves and appreciate that they may have to work through bad times to realise their own skills and qualities.
Until 27th January 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton