Sunday, 9 December 2007

Honk - Watermill Theatre

Honk by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Watermill Theatre 28th Nov - 5th Jan
Directed by Steven Dexter
Musical arrangements bySarah Travis
Musical Staging by Sam Spencer-Lane
Reviewed by
Damian Sandys

I have a confession to make…I’ve loved this show for a long time, ever since I saw Julia McKenzie’s magnificent production at the National Theatre in 2000; a production that secured the Olivier for Best New Musical over The Lion King. Therefore, in theory, half the battle had already been won with this review already. But familiarity with a piece brings new dangers, particularly when it is something that brought so much enjoyment originally. It is a sad truth but almost always the second production has to work extra hard to impress, in order to avoid the inevitable comparisons, however subconscious they may be. Theoretically. Yet The Watermill’s sparkling new production was so close to perfection that I was offered no choice but to transcend all thoughts of previous incarnations. Within seconds of the glorious “A Poultry Tale” it was quickly established that this was going to be an evening of fun, energy and skill, combined into one.

Stiles and Drewe’s show is a beautiful piece of theatre. It is so carefully constructed, filled with every animal pun you could possibly imagine, and some cracking one-liners. It follows the classic story of The Ugly Duckling: duckling hatches, discovers he is “different” from everyone else, ends up on the run from a sleazy cat, and finds himself travelling through a squadron of geese, a domesticated partnership, a Tommy Cooper-style Bullfrog and a beautiful swan, leading to his own transformation and a reunion with his family.

Under a lesser duo, the result would have been a simplistic children’s show. With these two at the helm, pure theatrical magic is created. The animals are not all furry and cuddly, but rather dressed as human counterpoints, and the characters are so cleverly drawn that you cannot help but recognise human society in everything they do.

This new production continues the work of The Watermill in presenting actor-musician combos to tell the story. I have never seen any of these works before and, I couldn’t quite get my head around how this could work, particularly if any empathy was to be achieved with the characters. I needn’t have worried. The musical arrangements by Sarah Travis are ingenious and it is breathtaking to watch the actors playing instruments one second, removing them to sing a line at the top of their lungs, and then immediately returning to the accompaniment. Assorted instruments are hung all around the set and the characters use them and replace them with great confidence, often bringing extra comedy to a scene: the Cat wields an electric guitar as part of his wooing technique; toy banjos materialise out of the duckpond over a morning’s gossip; a bugle doubles up as a television camera.

All of this requires highly skilled performers, and there is not a weak link amongst this tremendous ensemble cast. Mark Anderson gives an endearing and heartbreaking performance as Ugly. His bewilderment at the bullying he receives is remarkably poignant, and only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be moved when he sings, “Different isn’t scary, different isn’t bad, so why does being different make me sad?” Anderson resists slipping entirely into the role of a victim, giving Ugly a nice sense of feistiness at times, which paves the way for his transformation; a moment which had the audience cheering along on Press Night.

He is matched by Verity Quade as his mother, Ida. With exquisite lungs of steel and a beady stare, she offers a fierce protection to Ugly against the fury of the duckyard, and superbly portrays her anguish at losing Ugly and her relentless determination to find him again. Combining anger with tenderness, it is a truly memorable performance, made even more so by the huge variety of instruments played by Verity during the performance.

Philip Reed is a suitably sinister Cat, and found a great pairing with the delightful Claire Storey (Queenie); Simon Slater had tremendous style and panache as the Bullfrog (particularly with some clever ad-lbs); and Allison Harding’s gruff Lowbutt is worthy of the ticket alone.

At Christmas time there is an abundance of shows to go and see, with pantos cropping up all over the place. Put this at the top of your list. At the performance I attended, the age range went from 5-90 (with a big fair dollop in the middle!) and laughter could be heard from every corner, yet, at the stillest moments, you could hear a pin drop.

I started this review by stating that second productions have to work extra-hard to make it succeed for an audience member. This production would delight if it’s the first, second, fifth, hundredth time you were seeing the show, and I left the theatre already planning when I could come to see it again. For a truly heart-warming tale at Christmas, head down to Newbury for this delightful, magical Poultry Tale.

frontpage hit counter