Preview: Duck!, Unicorn Theatre, London

The ugly duckling strikes back
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The Independent Culture

The playwright Philip Osment has given Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling a 21st-century makeover. His contemporary retelling begins in north London, on Hampstead Heath, rather than in a farmyard in Denmark.

The ugly duckling, who is passive in the original story, now goes through an inner journey that results in him standing up for himself. "He goes back to confront his family who disowned him because he was a misfit," says Osment. "I thought it would be interesting for him to choose between life and death. He endures a long night of the soul and learns to stand up for himself."

The playwright came up with this modern version for the Unicorn Theatre while out walking on Hampstead Heath. "I was struggling to find a context for this adaptation. I went for a walk on the Heath, near to where I live, and there, on a winter morning, in the middle of an empty paddling pool, was this cygnet that was just turning into a swan. It was patchy white and brown and standing on its own. 'Of course!' I thought, 'I'll set it here'."

In Osment's Duck!, the ugly duckling meets a couple of streetwise Canadian geese on Parliament Hill, and hangs out with a cat and a hen who are being taught how to meditate by a woman in a house that backs on to the Heath. "He even meets Boudicca, whose burial mound, according to folklore, is thought to be on Hampstead Heath. She tells him not to be such a wimp."

Duck! is directed by Rosamunde Hutt, the newly appointed associate artistic director of the Unicorn who directed last year's production at the theatre of Journey to the River Sea.

"I have tried to keep the universality of the original story, while translating the events in the Andersen version to contemporary London," says Osment. "The two main messages of the play are for children not to play the victim, and to realise that things do change: when you are having a hard time, it is not always going to be like that."

1 December to 27 January (020-7645 0560;