The Union Theatre
31 March 2017
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s Honk! famously beat The Lion King and Mamma Mia! to win the Olivier for best new musical in 2000. As those two shows enter their 18th year in the West End, Honk! has returned in a new production at the Union Theatre that reminds us why critics and audiences fell in love with it all those years ago.
Inspired by the classic Hans Christian Andersen story about the Ugly Duckling, Honk! fills the stage with chicks and ducks and geese and other farmyard animals as the bullied and vilified young Ugly, with grubby feathers and stubby beak, learns to love his differences and find his way home after getting lost in the wild. Designed to appeal to children, there is plenty (and possibly more) to entertain adults, from the groan-worthy poultry puns and witty songs to the universal messages of acceptance and tolerance – something that both the writers and director believe is particularly topical in Brexit Britain. Ugly’s touching number, Different, tells us “different isn’t scary, different is no threat… So why is it so hard to get along?”, which resonates as much now as in 1993 when the first version of the musical premiered at The Watermill Theatre near Newbury.
In this new version, the seven-strong cast accompany the two-man band by playing instruments that match their characters although not to the extent of some actor-musician productions. They also show off their talents with Lily Howkins’ choreography and Phoebe Hill’s puppets, particularly the ducklings ingeniously brought to life using yellow umbrellas and spatulas. As a nod to it being a children’s show, there are brief bursts from water pistols and bubble guns but nothing that will require a change of clothing.
Dressed in a grey chunky knit of woolly hat, sweater and scarf, Liam Vincent-Kilbride is charming as Ugly, wide-eyed and innocent behind his thick-rimmed specs. Coming from Fife, he uses his natural Scottish accent to add to his sense of difference from the other farmyard characters with their Yorkshire inflections. Ellie Nunn gives a stand-out performance as Ugly’s mama, Ida, with a strong voice and fine sense of comedy as well as an ability to imbue her big number, Every Tear a Mother Cries, with as much power as a showstopper by Blood Brothers’ long-suffering Mrs Johnstone. Leon Scott is appealingly roguish as Ugly’s dad, Drake, as well as the stiff-upper-lipped captain of the Dad’s Army-style troop of wild geese. The incompetent villain of the piece is the cat, played wonderfully with feline guile by Sam Sugarman. The rest of the cast shine in a variety of different roles, with Robert Pearce giving a fine comic turn as an Irish frog and Emily Goad and Emma Jane Morton as an unlikely duo of a house-trained chicken and cat who reminded me of 1970s stars Hinge and Bracket.
Over 20 years on, Stiles & Drewe’s songs continue to charm, with pleasing melodies and witty lyrics that have become their trademark in shows such as Betty Blue Eyes and Soho Cinders as well as new work for Mary Poppins and current hit Half a Sixpence. Under musical director Oli Rew, the music is richly arranged but with clarity to ensure the word-play and witty rhymes can be enjoyed. With planks and bales of hay as well as more inventive props, the farmyard world has been cleverly conceived by designer Emily Bestow. It all comes together flawlessly under director Andy Room to present an egg-ceptional show that is an absolute delight for all ages.
Running to April 22, 2017. Photos Nick Rutter
Fun fact: Ellie Nunn has already proven her talent on stage, including roles in West End shows, but her casting in Honk! as Ida has an added resonance as she is the daughter of Trevor Nunn who brought Honk! to the National Theatre in 1999 during his time there as artistic director.