Note: This review dates from January 2000 and the musical's run at the National Theatre. The cast has changed since the writing of this review. For current cast details, please see the listing entry.
Luv-a-duck! George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have created the perfect family entertainment for this chilly yuletide season: a musical that's witty, uplifting and guaranteed to melt the ice from the coldest of hearts. The surprising thing about Honk! The Ugly Duckling, though, isn't that it's such a sparkling success, but that it's taken six years to wing it into London, after stints in Newbury and Scarborough.
Writer Drewe has taken Hans Christian Andersen's classic yarn as the source for his 'poultry tale of folk down on the farm', retaining much of the storyline about the mother duck (played by a strong-voiced Beverley Klein) who hatches out an aesthetically challenged waterfowl with painful consequences.
Ugly (Gilz Terera) is rejected by surrogate dad Drake (David Burt) and the rest of the colourful, anthropomorphic birdies on Peter McKintosh's cartoon-style pond, before being led astray by a caddish moggy (Jasper Britton, doing his best Terry Thomas send-up), who fancies him for tea.
By the time mum Ida notices her son is AWOL, he's already off on a character-building odyssey that teams him with an RAF-uniformed goose Greylag (David Bamber), a genial bullfrog (also played by Burt) and some love interest in the shape of cygnet Penny (Ceri Ann Gregory).
Composer Stiles and writer/lyricist Drewe are clearly influenced by Stephen Sondheim in their writing, although Honk! still has a very British, chin-up flavour to it, often reminding you in places of Lionel Bart or Flanders and Swann.
The pair offer a fine pastiche of a wartime ditty in 'Wild Goose Chase', and an eye-moistening showstopper in 'Warts and All', a Busby Berkeley-ish spectacular, danced by nimble kiddy amphibians.
Julia McKenzie's production utilises a young multi-cultural cast, which makes it more poignant when you hear the satirical number sung by xenophobic cat Queenie (Leigh McDonald) and her chum Lowbutt (Annabel Leventon). 'It takes all sorts to make a world/ on that point we are clear/ It takes all sorts to make a world/ but we don't want 'em here', they chime.
Not all of Drewe's lyrics are this pointed though; there were moments where they sounded trite and pedestrian. And I thought the adolescent Mr Terera let down the lead part with a lacklustre singing voice, too. However these small points don't detract hugely from Honk!, a show that's still a swan's neck ahead of the other stuff out there masquerading as musicals.