Like many great children’s stories, the Ugly Duckling touches on a universal feeling: the fear of being excluded, left out and bullied, merely for being different. Few escape childhood without experiencing that uniquely harsh form of isolation that can be enforced by fellow youngsters, whether because of looking different, being rubbish at sport, or any other of the myriad individualities that can be exploited by littluns intent on establishing identity and difference. This common playground issue – or pond issue, in the case of Ugly Duckling – has enormous moral and social significance in the grown-up world too: “Identity politics” has become a hackneyed term, but its power is plain to see in contemporary debates about nationalism, populism, transphobia, social media – pretty much all contemporary debates, really. Particularly given this context, there is huge potential to modernise and explore the Ugly Duckling’s raw material in a new, interesting way. Whilst tutti frutti’s production does raise questions of individuality and belonging, and goes some way in suggesting answers, more could have been done with this classic moral tale.
Leaving morals and messages aside momentarily, the physicality of the performance was its finest feature. Holly Irving’s movement direction combined with the performers’ gymnastics, dance and animal impersonations made for the show’s best moments. Daniel Naddafy was a duckling Michael Jackson one second, and a slinky cat the next; Danny Childs flopped around the stage clumsily before back-flipping and pirouetting gracefully; and Maeve Leahy morphed convincingly from dainty mother duck to hyperactive frantic doggy. The animals they portrayed were enjoyable in personality as well as choreography – though unsurprising choices were made (the needy dog, the aloof cat), this helped the different furry and feathery characters to be recognisable and winning.
It was also these animal archetypes that provided the high points of moral clarity in the piece, each demonstrating a different means of attaining popularity and status for Ugly. The goose reckoned you must fight. The dog suggested you need to please. The cat argued for distant nonchalance. Thinking about how you can get people to like or to respect you is among the foremost concerns of most young people, and here represented were three very different approaches to that conundrum. Perhaps presenting these archetypes is enough to prompt thoughts and questions in the young audience, but this perpetual human problem could have been explored further, or could at least have appeared less muddled. At one stage the message seems a strong call to feel comfortable with who you are (“you’re the right size for you”), but later the protagonist is urged to follow the ways of his species – he should abide by his essential nature. This is further confused by a revelation at the play’s end, which creates less of a fruitful complication than a puzzling negation of previous sentiments. Clear morals are of course never a necessity, and neither is there an obligation for children’s theatre to grapple with Big Questions, but it nonetheless seemed a missed opportunity in a production that did seem intent on imparting a message. The story of the Ugly Duckling could have allowed for an artfully accessible exploration of possible routes through the knotty and contentious issues of identity, difference, status and authenticity.
The unashamedly light-hearted moments of the show compensated significantly for the messy moral narrative: Tayo Akinbode’s more whimsical songs went down a treat, and Naddafy and Childs in particular were master craftsmen of tomfoolery. Crowd-pleasing sequences were guaranteed to win laughs without coming across too easy – it’s always good when you can indulge in fart noises whilst displaying more skill than puerility.
A new adaptation can never wring out all the potential of a traditional story. This production of the Ugly Duckling certainly capitalises on its characterisation and humour, but it could have got more from its ripe narrative and moral material.
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