The winner of the 2000 Olivier award for Best Musical, Honk! has spent the last twenty years slipping quietly into suburban obscurity. In 2017 it was revived to great acclaim at the Union Theatre, and has since been workshopping at The Arts Centre Hounslow, from whence it will launch its national tour.
It is hard not to draw parallels between the play and the venue itself. Both have been rescued, after years in the wilderness, and lovingly revamped with a shoestring budget but plenty of enthusiasm and heart. Both are delightfully makeshift, with a distinct community feel about them. And both are charmingly, oh-so-very-Britishly eccentric.
The plot is roughly the same as that of the original Hans Christian Andersen story; ugly duckling struggles to make friends, runs away from home and endures terrible hardships before finally discovering his true nature and finding acceptance with a flock of swans. Writing duo Stiles and Drewe have fleshed out the skeleton by giving Ugly (as he is sadly named) a quarrelsome, likeable family, a nemesis in the form of a hungry cat and several entertaining smaller characters for him to become entangled with along the way. Chief among these a squadron of WW2 geese, a jovial bullfrog and an eyebrow-raising cat/chicken couple.
Director Andy Room has gone for a simple farmyard set with flapping stable doors, which serves perfectly for every scene. He has also eschewed traditional animal costumes for the most part, skilfully using clothing to indicate the creature represented, and making it easier for the seven actors to slip seamlessly between over twenty roles. Ducklings are made of decorated gloves and umbrellas, baby frogs are essentially shower-caps and a pair of googly eyes, snowstorms are glittery paper and air blowers and water is conjured with bubble guns. It’s all great fun, and, in combination with some excellently atmospheric lighting, very effective.
Gregor Duncan is kitted out in fifty shades of slurry to play Ugly. His wide-eyed naivety and enthusiastic clumsiness are a joy to behold, and his honk is marvellous. Ellie Nunn, who was also part of the 2017 cast, has received great praise as Ida, Ugly’s mother, and it is well-deserved. She brings warmth, humour and genuine emotion to a role which could so easily crystalize into the superficially saccharine, as she searches for her lost son. James Dangerfield is a menacing gangster cat, but it would have been nice to see a more gradual mental breakdown as his plans are thwarted time and again. Danni Payne, Emma Barclay, Chris Thomson and Peter Noden provide sterling support as the various oddballs – special mention must go to Thomson and Barclay’s geese, Graylag and Dot, and Barclay and Payne’s Lowbutt and Queenie.
The songs are jaunty, clever and entertaining, and the three-man band, lead by Oli Rew, are spot on in timing and verve; sadly the sound levels were not properly adjusted, meaning that they often drowned out the singers. This was a shame as every member of the cast had a beautiful voice.
It is not easy, when creating a children’s show, to ensure a production which also appeals to the long-suffering adults who have to accompany them. Honk! is the epitome of that perfect, elusive balance. The production is noisy, colourful and fast-paced enough to hold young attention. The story of bullying and loneliness and the message of love and acceptance is simple enough to be understood and appreciated by children of all ages, while
the various adult word plays and storylines, which caused much sniggering among the mums and dads in the audience, would go straight over smaller heads.
This is a welcome return for a marvellous musical which deserves to become a classic. I wish cast and crew every success on their upcoming tour.
Review by Genni Trickett
HONK! is flying the nest after a critically-acclaimed, award-nominated run in London. Described as “flawless”, “relentlessly excellent” and “an absolute joy to watch”, this musical egg-stravaganza is bursting with puppetry, magic and illusions… and water guns!
This heartwarming reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling tells the story of Ugly, a plucky little bird who gets picked on by the other farmyard animals because he’s different. Pushed out of the flock, he embarks on an adventure across the marsh, meeting an array of characters who teach him that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that he is much more than just his fowl looks.