Review: Honk! (Union Theatre)

Stiles and Drewe’s take on ”The Ugly Duckling” is revived in its 20th anniversary year

Growing up as a tall, ugly child with a big nose, big feet and a beautiful singing voice, poor Hans Christian Andersen was bound to become the target of playground bullies, and indeed his childhood was made miserable by taunts and mockery.

In later life, the brilliant storyteller published one of his most enduring tales, The Ugly Duckling (1843), dealing with the rejection faced by an outsider who’s the wrong shape and colour to fit into his community. He described it as his autobiography.

Andy Room’s revival of Honk!, the musical adaptation of the story, is an energetic and engaging show for children, with terrific tunes and some sparky characterisations.

Liam Vincent-Kilbride has a sweet diffidence as Ugly, the swan-in-waiting, and Ellie Nunn excels as mother duck Ida, whose warmth and selfless love for all her babies lies at the heart of the action. Nunn packs in plenty of humour, grumbling about her wayward husband Drake (Leon Scott), but it’s her maternal ties to her lost child that give the production its emotional punch.

Very young children may need to have it explained that these farmyard characters are meant to be animals, as there are no obvious costumes or props to indicate that here is a cat, a swan, and so on. However, imaginative puppetry from Phoebe Hill combines umbrellas, beaks and Marigold gloves to create some adorable ducklings. And the set by Emily Bestow includes some splendid eggs alongside the riot of rundown farm buildings and hay.

The entire company contributes instrumentally as well as vocally for a varied soundscape alongside the three-man band, led by Oli Rew – though the paper-and-comb ensemble perhaps takes the honours.

Some of the harmonies are a bit sketchy at times, but there are rousing musical numbers including a showstopping song-and-dance "Warts and All" from Robert Pearce as Bullfrog, with lively choreography by Lily Howkins.

This show, written in 1993 by the hugely successful partnership of Anthony Drewe and George Stiles, has since been performed in 8,000 productions to more than six million people all over the world.

Alongside the power of love, Honk’s message of celebrating diversity and difference is a particularly welcome one. There’s always room for someone new on the lake – or at least there should be…

Honk! runs at the Union Theatre until 22 April.