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Honk! review at Union Theatre, London – ‘charming, but over-complicated’

Liam Vincent Kilbride in Honk! at Union Theatre, London. Photo: Nick Rutter Liam Vincent Kilbride in Honk! at Union Theatre, London. Photo: Nick Rutter
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The much-loved story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling is an elegant fable about bullying and acceptance.

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s 1993 musical Honk! adheres to Andersen’s original fairly closely but brings to it elements of contemporary humour and a score which is arguably their best to date.

The message has been skewed slightly in the adaptation. Acceptance appears to come only when the ugly has been rendered beautiful.

Director Andy Room doesn’t dwell on this moral question too much. His production uses puppetry and imaginative design to help tell the story while Emily Bestow’s set transforms the Union’s black box into a ramshackle barnyard with corrugated sheets and hay bales.

But the energy of the show is often compromised by the use of actor/musicians to valiantly supplement musical director Oli Rew’s three-person band.

An extra keyboard, cello and various woodwind instruments are pulled out with eye-rolling regularity, overpowering the vocals far more often than they enhance Stiles’ score.

A pair of glasses and a woolly hat fail to take the edge of Liam Vincent-Kilbride’s good looks but the actor embraces the idea of Ugly with enthusiasm and sensitivity. He is supported by an equally enthusiastic ensemble cast including an excellent Ellie Nunn, as doting mother Ida, and an expressive Sam Sugarman, as a predatory Cat.

There are lots of great ideas in this take on Honk! but some of them serve the production better than the source material. Room and his team are refreshing in their ambition but sometimes a simple story will benefit best from a simple staging.

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Charming Stiles and Drewe musical made fussy by an over-complicated production