Honk! continues at the Union Theatre, London until 22 April.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Having just left the Union Theatre and its revival of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s family-friendly Honk!, I’m not surprised that the show won the Olivier for Best Musical back in 2000, beating Spend Spend Spend and, impressively, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King. What does surprise me is that this wonderful piece hasn’t been a regular in the West End since then, as it has all the ingredients you need for a popular, commercial piece of musical theatre.
Honk!, a musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, first hatched at the Watermill Theatre in 1993 with its more familiar Ugly Duckling title and carrying the rather wonderful subtitle The Aesthetically Challenged Farmyard Fowl.
Julia McKenzie championed the show’s first ‘proper’ outing, directing it in Scarborough in 1997, and it opened at the National in 1999, resulting in that coveted Olivier. Since then, although not a regular in London, it has enjoyed success internationally, with more than 8,000 performances worldwide, and a slightly modified version has become something of a staple for schools.
Director Andy Room’s inventive new production at the Union – produced by Dot by Dot – shows off Stiles and Drewe’s sparkling writing to its best effect, with the entire cast not putting one foot or flipper wrong.
It’s an absolute joy to watch this young, zestful company making the most of the pun-heavy material. They deliver Drewe’s endless stream of witty jokes (yolks?) and create Hans Christian Andersen’s colourful characters with great style. Every one of the delightful songs is given their all.
The book – by lyricist Drewe – treads a fine line, being funny and engaging for kids, yet giving the adults plenty to snigger at. But it’s not pantomimic or tacky… it’s got a lot more class.
Puppetry, brilliantly conceived by Phoebe Hill, brings the duckling’s siblings to life with household objects such as umbrellas, cooking tongs, socks and rain hats, adding a lovely comical dimension, especially in the hands of such talented puppeteers.
Complementing this is Emily Bestow’s effective farmyard set, Rosemary Elliott-Dancs’ costumes and Tim Deiling’s lighting; all three are at their most effective during an underwater sequence in Act I – a mesmerising scene created with the simple billowing of a thin sheet of fabric, some twinkling lights and the donning of fishy hats.
In newcomer Liam Vincent-Kilbride, a star is hatched. In the last weeks of his training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he takes the lead role of Ugly, the NHS-specced duckling that you can’t help but fall in love with.
His natural Scottish accent helps create the character of the awkward outsider, and when he sings, he’s got a cracking voice – pun intended.
Ellie Nunn, as his mother Ida, is also an outstanding talent, with a genuinely heartbreaking turn towards the end of the show. And the sinewy Sam Sugarman gives a wickedly good performance as the hungry Cat, determined to tuck into duck à l’orange.
The rest of the cast take on multiple roles and are all a credit to the show. Particularly funny is Robert Pearce’s turn as a friendly bullfrog, and Emily Goad and Emma Jane Morton as Lowbutt and Queenie: chicken and cat spinsters channelling the spirits of Evadne Hinge and Hilda Bracket. I also can’t leave out Leon Scott in the role of dad Drake and, brilliantly, doubling as the anserine squadron leader Greylag.
The entire quadruplet-threat cast play their own music throughout, managing to wrangle their multiple instruments while effortlessly handling choreographer Lily Howkins’ routines. Supporting them is MD Oli Rew at the piano, accompanied by bassist Andrew Richards and percussionist – and notable xylophonist – Joe Pickering.
So, what’s not to like? Honk! has great songs and great performances, and scored 5 out of 5 from the kids I straw-polled at the interval.
Like them, I really can’t fault this production, other than perhaps gripe about the Union’s stifling heat. There’s a lovely moment in Act II that depicts the coming of winter using giant industrial fans, and for a few brief seconds the blast of cool air is very much welcomed.
The programme – one of the more engaging playbills I’ve ever seen, it has to be said – handily doubles as a fan.
As well as being a good laugh, Honk! has many wonderful messages about inclusiveness, multi-culturalism and celebrating our differences, making it the perfect show for younger audiences.
As Anthony Drewe explains in the programme notes, one in 10 children bullied at school have attempted to commit suicide, and our current political situation in the UK has called into question our willingness as a nation to accept outsiders, so the show couldn’t be better timed.
Honk! is also helping to raise funds for the charity Myeloma UK. Tragically, Liam Vincent-Kilbride lost his father to this form of blood-plasma cancer only a few days before the show opened, so look out for the collection buckets as you leave. With tickets starting at just £17.50, you should have some change to spare.