These days they’re probably best known for tarting up Mary Poppins for the stage, but the musical writing partnership of Stiles and Drewe had a big success long before that.
Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical has become a staple of children’s theatre since it first appeared in 1993, and this imaginative version on the Royal’s intimate stage offers a charming alternative to festive panto fare for the holiday season.
The plot is pretty self-explanatory – big grey hatchling rejected by the farmyard creatures takes himself off for the winter, returns a majestic white swan – and to be honest, it’s spread a little thinly across two and a quarter hours, with some sharply contrasting moments of brilliance and dullness in both the score and dialogue.
But the production itself is hard to fault, with director Andrew Panton and musical director Peter Woollard really getting the most out of their enthusiastic cast of eight adults and eight children.
Adam Barlow is an utterly charming Ugly, with a fine singing voice and full range of emotions. Fiona Dunn plays his mum Ida with a touching vulnerability, while other cast members play multiple roles with panache and humour.
The standout performance, though, comes from David McGranaghan as a fiendish feline intent on luring the ugly duckling away from his brood to put something “in the kitty” – lunch. The movement, characterisation and sheer wickedness created by this talented young actor make for a baddie as bad as any you could want in a Christmas show. All that’s missing is the booing.
Elsewhere, a tight pit band keeps the music rolling along, while Jason Denvir’s ingenious set design allows for flying geese, dancing frogs and hatching eggs to grace the stage with equal believability and a genuine sense of fun throughout.
And if there isn’t at least a hint of a tear in the eye by the end, then you’re a tougher critic than I…