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Phil Willmott

Review: HONK at the Union Theatre

HONK!  - Liam Vincent-Kilbride A delightful family show, Honk, has just opened at the Union Theatre, where I often direct.

It’s 20 years since this early musical by George Styles and Anthony Drewe was the unexpected choice for a major production at the National Theatre and an even more unexpected choice to win the Olivier award for best musical, defeating the newly opened Lion King and Mamma Mia. All this was unexpected not because it isn’t a very good show, it is, but because on the surface it’s such a sweet unassuming little piece; however beneath the slight story of a lost ugly duckling who discovers he’s a swan is a powerful anti-bullying message.

Since its triumphant premiere this swan has become a cash cow for the composers of new songs for hit productions including Half A Sixpence and Mary Poppins and original scores for Betty Blue Eyes and the forthcoming London Palladium production of Wind in the Willows. Honk’s potential to be staged with large groups of kids of either gender has made it a firm favourite with schools and youth clubs all over the world earning a small fortune for the writers. But if amateur productions are ubiquitous there’ve been surprisingly few professional revivals so this one is very welcome.

On Emily Bestow’s simple rustic looking set, dominated by a platform set against a backdrop of barn type wooden slats, we meet a clever cast of 9 actor musicians who play a farmyard full of poultry... and a predatory cat.

No one dresses up as an animal, they wear human clothing especially chosen by Rosemary Elliot-Dancs to evoke the characteristics of each creature in the story, matching this with appropriate movements. For instance the ugly duckling is adorably played by Liam Vincent-Killbride, wearing a thick woolly jumper, hat and scarf to suggest a chick’s downy feathers. He gradually sheds all these as a he transitions throughout the play into a swan at which point a simple white shirt and trousers represents his sleeker mature plumage.

The story of a youngster rejected by his friends and siblings for being different will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been ostracised and the target of name calling – just about everyone then - but the bond between mother and son and her desperate search for him reflects those heartbreaking news reports of human mothers whose children go missing. Ellie Nunn plays Mother Ida with such sincerity and warm mummsiness that she’ll make a great Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers when she’s older.

There are problems with inexperienced director Andy Room’s production. Every magic trick he has incorporated was fluffed on the night I saw it, the puppets lack charm and I'm not sure that having the cast also raggedly play musical instruments contributes much aside from making it harder to hear the lyrics but it’s clearly been directed with enormous love and there are enough clever touches to suggest he’s a talent to watch. I wish ugliness wasn’t symbolised by wearing glasses though, with beauty suggested by their removal – not a great message for kids who have to wear specs as I did.

The cast are terrific, I'm nuts about cats so my favourite characters were the felines played by Sam Sugarman and Emma Jane Morton but everyone gets a solo and a great character to play.

Extra kudos to Liam Vincent-Kilbride for developing such a wonderful performance, his professional debut, so soon after a close family bereavement.