Being different in a world plagued by mediocrity and enforced conventionality can be tough. To fit in one must look a certain way, conforming to ideas of beauty and behaviour. To belong and be an important part of the community is something everyone strives for, and to alienate and degrade one who is different by choice or chance is something that helps individuals cement their place in the group and maintain the status quo of society. Tolerance is risky, it invites change and individual thought. It takes courage to be tolerant and great individual strength to find out who you really are.
Honk! a musical comedy by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe based on the children’s morality tale of The Ugly Duckling, discusses these themes of belonging, conventional beauty and the value of tolerance. Set in an English countryside farmyard, the story is centred on Ugly, a Cygnet who is mistaken for a duck after falling into the wrong nest. Rejected by all except his loving mother, Ugly must face a journey of discovery and danger to find out who he really is and where he belongs.
PEP Productions have lovingly staged this sweet musical with heart felt commitment and a solid focus on their own community, utilising the strengths of each individual and the assets of the company as a whole, creating a true ensemble production.
The sentiment behind the production is real and it shows on the faces of each individual on stage, namely their joy at being part of what has certainly been a valuable experience for all involved.
Direction from Justin Cleaver provided specific focus on aesthetics and on how the characteristics of the different barn yard animals represent the personalities of the individual within the greater community. Clear focus has been placed on building these characterisations through gesture and physical action related to that animal. Highlights of the production include the staging of Uglys first swim during ‘Hold Your Head Up High’ and the Geese formations throughout ‘The Wild Goose Chase’, with outstanding comedic timing and strong characterisations in ‘It Takes All Sorts’, ‘Together’, and ‘Warts And All’. The direction demonstrated a clear vision, but it was unfortunate that some scenes and transitions suffered from inconsistencies with clumsy blocking and pacing issues. As the cast and crew relax into the season and the space, this will hopefully develop and improve.
Costume and set design by Kathryn White were nothing short of immaculate. With clever use of rear projection and vivid colour and form, the set created the perfect backdrop for this youthful tale. The costumes were wonderfully realised with accurate use of texture and style, and amazing attention to detail. The overall effect was like being inside a 1940’s Warner Bros cartoon, a perfect choice for the style and nature of this show. The set and costumes were greatly enhanced with lighting design by Yaz Sesta. Inspired, but simple use of moving lights and patterns provided depth and beauty to each distinct scene, and just like the costumes and set, the knowledge of colour and its use to create mood and dramatic moments were outstanding.
Musical director John Tacey backed up the Direction and Design with the quirky yet somewhat forgettable musical score. The band was energetic and solid. Vocals from all cast were generally strong although pacing and dramatic intent within several songs needed further attention.
Sound design in any musical is always a challenge and one of the more difficult technical areas. As such, there were some opening night issues with the sound delivery, which will no doubt improve as the season progresses. Generally, the sound design by Peter Philp and David Drew worked for the space and the band, but I would have liked to hear some distinct differences in the levels between dialogue, songs and voice overs.
Choreography by Natasha Harvey provided focus and energy in several scenes and many simple formations and creative movements improved the dynamics of the story and staging.
Nathan Slevin in the lead role as Ugly stole the show with a heartfelt and engaging performance. His commitment to the role and character drove the story and the sympathy of the audience. His honking was heartbreaking and provided some of the best moments in the show. Alongside Ugly was his long suffering and devoted Mother Ida, played with consistent pathos by Michaela Philp. With an engaging vocal performance, she portrayed the unconditional love of a Mother who can only see the beauty within. As Drake, Nick Durbridge delivered a strong physical characterisation and a confident command of the stage.
Joseph Simms as the charming and engaging Bullfrog was a standout with a fun and dynamic physical performance. Other standouts included Saskia Penn and Frieda Lai as Queenie and Lowbutt. Their duet was a highlight with excellent individual characterisations, perfect comic timing and chemistry. As the villain of the piece desperate to have Ugly for his dinner, Mitchell Stewart as Cat was charismatic and charming. His physical and vocal performance were impressive. Other favourites in the show were the battalion of Geese enlisted to help get Ugly home, in particular the comedy dynamic of Greylag (James Gilmour) and Barnacles (Rebecca Fletcher). All this was backed up by a strong ensemble of cheeky Ducklings, clucky Chickens, swimming Fish, beautiful Swans and one very funny Turkey.
Honk! presented by PEP Productions is a colourful show for all the family. In the end this endearing tale demonstrated the power of love and community, in discovering who you really are, and deciding exactly where you belong. Be part of this enduring creative community and go and see it!