The Ugly Duckling

Katherine Chandler
Sherman Cymru / Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
Sherman Cymru

The Ugly Duckling Credit: Sherman Cymru

This year’s festive offering for younger children (and their parents) from Sherman Cymru, is Katherine Chandler’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-rending tale of outsider-dom, The Ugly Duckling, directed by Sara Lloyd. (As this is a co-production with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, a Welsh-language translation by Mererid Hopwood, with the same cast, is playing in parallel.)

Many of the audience are seated on mats in front of the playing area in the Sherman’s studio space. The actors come out before the action begins and put us at our ease, offering a friendly welcome.

The tale then unfolds. The titular wildfowl, played by Iwan Charles, begins by attempting to inveigle himself into the company of two of his fellow creatures. But they, played by Anni Dafydd and Gwenllian Higginson, share a language of quacks, while he can only honk. Also, his colouring is drably grey to their bright white. And they have no compunction in expressing their opinion as to his lack of beauty.

Remaining optimistic, the Duckling embarks upon a quest to find friendship. This leads to a farmyard encounter with a hen and a cat, and a mercifully non-violent meeting with a kindly, short-sighted hunting-dog. Along the way, he notices with yearning some beautiful, long-necked birds gliding gracefully through the skies above. If only…

The cast are uniformly excellent, ably pulling off the trick of communicating effectively with an audience of 3-6 year-olds without either talking down to or intimidating them.

There are co-incidental similarities between this production and Arabian Nights in the main house—not only do the actors narrate as well as taking multiple roles, but they also play several musical instruments (guitar, harp, violin, glockenspiel, xylophone, ukulele). Each piece also boasts a moment of crowd-pleasing flatulence, this one resulting from the Duckling’s vain attempts to lay an egg.

Dyfan Jones’s music is charming, and the repeated theme (a song about the world keeping turning around and around) is very catchy. The lighting effects, by Rachel Mortimer, are impressive, provoking gasps of delight as they convey starlight, snowfall and fleets of swans.

Hayley Grindle’s vaguely agriculturally themed set is minimal but attractive. The costumes are wittily suggestive of the animals portrayed rather than realistic; the spectacle-wearing hound was warmly received, and the large-bottomed hen provoked much amusement.

Andersen described his story in autobiographical terms, and it appears that he may never have found the acceptance he craved. Happily, this Duckling remains largely upbeat throughout, sparing his audience any real trauma.

At the performance I attended, the younger spectators remained engaged and amused, though not in awed silence. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only adult who cheered inwardly as the Duckling finally encountered his fellow honkers.

This is a funny, charming production of a profoundly resonant fable.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith