Ugly Duckling

Reviewed by Harry Mottram
A Travelling Light and Tobacco Factory Theatre co-production
Reviewed at The Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol
Playing at The Tobacco Factory Theatre until January 14th 2018
For ages 2+

Flowing from one scene to another the narrative structure of Sally Cookson’s The Ugly Duckling directed by Craig Edwards is like a discarded swan’s feather: sleek, smooth and beautifully constructed.

Photo: Mark Dawson

Emily May Smith as Duckie bursts out of her shell into a world in which she doesn’t fit, save for the undying love of Mother Duck played with waddling wonderfulness by the be-hatted and non celeripedean Heather Williams who sings: “You are beautiful, I’ll tell you again and again.” Then there are her brothers and sisters as well as various farm animals who insult, ignore and reject Duckie as a member of the pond side community. Bullied and confused she sets out on a journey of self-discovery. Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th century story of social exclusion and of being an individual in a regulated world connects with us all in that universal feeling of wishing to be included. Duckie is confused when she is shunned by her peers and cries: “I don’t belong here.” In the hands of Travelling Light the moral fable reminds us all to be ourselves, that everyone is of value and will eventually have the confidence if nurtured to leave the bosom of our mother’s downy love and take flight into the world.

Photo: Mark Dawson

The audience that included lots of pre school and infant school children were engrossed in the 45 minute epic. Their eyes followed every agony of Duckie as she is lost in the spooky reeds of the marshes, the frosts of winter or the deceiving world of an old woman’s graocracy. Brian Hargreaves’ music coupled with the singing of the ensemble cast that included the delightfully versatile Heidi Niemi was simple yet complex with Michelle Gaskell’s slick choreography and easy to follow and understand words in the bitter-sweet coming of age tale. So much energy, so much movement and so much humour. And I’ve not even mentioned the delightful underwater scene or the flight of swans with their white umbrellas: all perfectly brilliant.

Photo: Mark Dawson

Add to that Matt Graham’s lighting and Jason Barnes’ sound and the whole show came into sharp focus in the theatre in the round setting of the Tobacco Factory. An outstanding production using the minimum of props and the minimum of costumes, but the maximum of acting, movement and song at its aquatic and feathered best.

This review was originally published on

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