Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019
This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard. When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different. “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed. The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty. Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.
Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show. Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power. In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs. Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.
It’s a small but hard-working cast. Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck. A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield). Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role. He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.
It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices. The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs. The Cat has ears poking through his hat. But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies. It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else. Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way. I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style. I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet. Or I would have done the puppets differently. But that’s me.
There is much to admire and enjoy here. Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.