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Review of Honk! at the Union Theatre

HONK! Liam Vincent-Kilbride as Ugly and Robert Pearce as Bullfrog Photo Nick Rutter
HONK! Liam Vincent-Kilbride as Ugly and Robert Pearce as Bullfrog Photo by Nick Rutter

One of the great worries for people in the theatrical business is where the next generation of theatre audiences will be coming from. The obvious answer is grab them while they are young, get the interest generated and they will stay with you forever. So, there are really good quality shows doing the rounds such as The Gruffalo and The Wind in the Willows. These shows work because they engagHe with the audience at all levels from toddler to great grandparent. Another show that does this is style is Anthony Drewe and George Stiles Honk! which has just opened at the Union Theatre.

Honk! is basically a musical adaptation of the the famous Hans Christian Andersen story, The Ugly Duckling. Although the original story is quite short – egg hatches, ‘chick’ is different and shunned by everyone, it goes into hiding and emerges later as a swan. This production expands the narrative beautifully to produce a full length, highly enjoyable musical. So now, Ugly (Liam Vincent-Kilbride), as the hero is known, has parents in the shape of Ida (Ellie Nunn) and Drake (Leon Scott). He also has bright yellow siblings which, against his very grey countenance really marks him out as different to the rest of the brood. The story also benefits from the introduction of a nasty cat (Sam Sugarman) whose one aim in life is to have a lunch of duck a l’orange. Whilst Ida has warned Ugly about the cat, he is confused as the cat is the only creature in the farmyard, apart from his mother, that shows him any friendship. Will the cat get his special lunch or will Ugly manage to outwit him and set off for a great adventure as he tries to get home to his mother and the farmyard.

So, there I am sitting in the audience of a kid’s show waiting for the lights to come down and wondering how I’m going to pass the next couple of hours without falling asleep. Well, I have to say it was easy as Honk! was great fun from the opening number ‘A Poultry Tale’ through to the final one ‘Look at Him’. There was a talented cast playing multiple roles and also musical instruments. There was a lovely farmyard set, with a few surprises, designed by Emily Bestow and a great story with some very enjoyable songs. Director Andy Room really moves the cast around, a lot, which in the very warm Union Theatre stage area meant everyone looked exhausted by the end. They also looked as if they had had a thoroughly good time and were enjoying themselves throughout the performance as hay, leaves and even snow went flying around them. Costume-wise, Designer Rosemary Elliott-Dance has avoided chicken suits and the like but gone for more rustic costumes that still ensure the audience know which animal is which in the farmyard and surrounding area. The amount of moving around meant that heads were whipping around at times and, as the performers weren’t miked up, occasionally some of the lyrics were lost, but not that much to the detriment of the production as a whole.

Liam Vincent-Kilbride shines as Ugly, with his tall body in complete contrast to his parents and a wonderful look of innocence and boyish inquisitiveness on his face. Ellie Nunn’s Ida is a perfect example of a mother who loves her children no matter what and, certainly, in this story, won’t let anything stop her from finding her wayward ‘chick’. Special mention has to go to Robert Pearce who nearly steals the show with his portrayal of a newspaper selling bullfrog who has no illusions about himself. I also want to say a big thank you for the comedy double act of Queenie (Emma Jane Morton) and Lowbutt (Emily Goad) during Act II who were responsible for some of my loudest laughs.

Production photos released from the 20th anniversary production of HONK!

To sum up then, Honk! is a perfect example of a family friendly musical that will entrance and entertain an audience irrespective of age, gender or knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen. As with all Hans Christian Andersen’s work, there is a moral to the story, in fact, Honk! has quite a few morals if you want to look for them. But aside from giving parents something to discuss with the sprogs on the way home, the moral element isn’t that important. This is simply a really good show put on by a great cast that will leave everyone with a smile on their face.

4 stars

Review by John Mortis

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.

Pipping The Lion King and Mamma Mia! to the post to win the 2000 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, Honk! has gone on to perform all around the world, returning to London in its 20th anniversary year.

British writing duo Stiles and Drewe’s other works have exploded around the UK over the last few years and includes Mary Poppins, Half a Sixpence and the soon-to-open Wind in the Willows. Seen in London for only the third time since its National Theatre production in 2000, Honk! is guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face – no matter how horrendously ugly that smile may be.

Ugly – Liam Vincent-Kilbride
Ida – Ellie Nunn
Drake – Leon Scott
Cat – Sam Sugarman
Turkey/Jack Daw/Bullfrog/Father Swan – Robert Pearce
Maureen/Henrietta/Penny/Lowbutt/Pinkfoot – Emily Goad
Grace/Mother Swan/Queenie/Dot – Emma Jane Morton

Creative Team:
Director Andy Room
Musical Director Oli Rew
Choreographer Lily Howkins
Designer Anna Reid
Puppet Designer Phoebe Hill
Producers Paul Virides and Lian Wilkinson for Dot By Dot Productions


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