Ever feel like you just don’t quite fit in? Like you’re the only bird on the farm with your feathers out of place? In the offbeat, Olivier Award-winning Stiles and Drewe musical comedy Honk!, the Ugly duckling knows this feeling all too well. This beloved show is being staged by PEP Productions, and is set to be an incredibly fun and memorable musical for all musical theatre comedy lovers.
Based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about an unfairly persecuted dowdy duckling, Honk! re-imagines the characters and story of The Ugly Duckling in a colourful and quirky world, set to incredibly catchy music. As a performer in the show, I spoke to three principal actors in PEP Productions’ Honk! to capture what it is that we feel makes this show so special.
Nathan Slevin, who plays the central character of Ugly, explains that, “Honk has been a lot of fun. The story and the script surprised me. I didn’t know much about the show beforehand, other than that it is a musical version of The Ugly Duckling. The script is funnier than I thought it would be, and I’ve really enjoyed the role of Ugly.” Who is Ugly, you ask? “Ugly is the main character of the show. He gets bullied and picked on by everyone because his looks are a bit different to everyone else. He’s a bit ugly. So he’s a loner, and he gets lost. Honk tells the story of his journey, and everyone he meets along the way.” These wacky characters he stumbles into include an inept squadron of military geese, an unlikely pair of domesticated friends, and an unconventionally inspiring, show-stopping frog.
However, Ugly’s journey is marred by some shockingly terrible weather, as well as the slight problem of a hungry cat intent on capturing him. Mitchell Stewart, who plays the Cat, describes his character as “the villain of the piece; a creepy stalker who thinks of Ugly as nothing but his next meal, he spends most of his time trying to achieve that. He is foiled in unfortunate ways many times, but that doesn’t deter him from trying to eat the duckling.” His number Play With Your Food is set to be a highlight of the show, the cast predicts. Michaela Philp, who plays Ida, names it as her favourite part of the show; “Play With Your Food is creepy and hilarious, and so over-the-top, so it’s a lot of fun to watch.” Mitchell Stewart assures it’s just as fun to play, but do watch out for his character’s “insane” downfall by the end of the show. It’s hilarious.
Not all of the farm animals in Ugly’s life see him as a misfit or a meal. Philp explains, “Ida is Ugly’s mother. She loves her son, regardless of what he looks like; a face that only a mother could love. She spends a lot of the show defending him to everybody else, and then trying to find him when he’s missing, because she won’t give up on him. That’s the underlying theme for Ida’s character – never give up.” She has related to the character, not being a naturally maternal person, “by pretending that it’s me losing my dog, and imagining how I’d react in that situation.” Her stirring ballad Every Tear a Mother Cries is affecting and beautifully delivered by Philp – her dog must be a very special dog. Ida is a suitable straight-man for the campy characters that populate the farmyard and beyond, though Philip does thoroughly enjoy her chances to “deathglare Nick”, who plays her unbearable husband, Drake. I just know that the audience will instantly warm to her.
When I asked the three performers what three words they think best describe the show, we all agreed: punny, catchy, and heart-warming. Humour is a very important part of the show, much of it being pun-based humour, various poultry-related witticisms, and comedic, animal-like characterisations. Slevin explains, “I get to be quite physical in this show, probably more than I have been able to previously.” However, it has been an enjoyable challenge for the cast to find a balance in playing animals as humans with animal-like characteristics. “Because we are playing human versions of animals, I just took little bits and pieces from the real thing, and just tried to do it how an actual person would, and not so much caricature an animal”, Slevin explains. “I approached it not as if I’m just playing an ugly bird. Instead, I approached it through the character, and where he goes in the show, and then added some bits in from the animal.” The audience will no doubt find much amusement in watching out for those fauna-inspired subtleties in every performance.
Audiences, whether they are familiar with the show or not, whether young or old, will find so much delight in Honk! “For the most part, it’s just an enjoyable show,” says Michaela Philp. “Don’t come in and take it too seriously. It’s the kind of show that you just want to sit there, enjoy the characters, enjoy the music, enjoy the dance numbers, enjoy the over-the-top, ridiculous nature of the show. And the gorgeous costumes by Kathryn White.” Many of the cast were pleasantly surprised by the sheer quality of the piece, and we believe that audiences will be, too. There are jokes that still make me laugh, even after seeing them delivered time after time in rehearsal.
As I can attest, the rehearsal experience has been wonderfully supportive and creatively open and welcoming. Philip recounts: “it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience for everyone in the show, I think. There’s been very little negative about the show for everyone involved.” Slevin reiterates the cohesion of the group, stating that “the cast has just worked really well together on stage”. I think there’s something special about Honk, in that every single cast member has the opportunity to create their own distinct character, forging a dynamic and supportive farmyard community. That sense of joy that the cast has so embraced will permeate through the delectable delight that is Honk!
Honk! opens on the 20th of August, with tickets to be purchased via this link. Theatre People wishes PEP a massive chookas, which may or may not be meant as a statement of good luck in addition to being a farm-related pun, because, you know… Chickens.