FIRST NIGHT: The lump that dare not quack its name

Honk! Olivier Theatre London
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The Independent Online
HONK!?? surely some mistake there? I'm not much of a naturalist and, god knows, the last person on earth who could be described as a car mechanic, but I'd always understood that honking was something done by geese or automobiles. This utterly delicious new musical version of the "Ugly Duckling" story by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe has widened my horizons on the issue. Hatching out of a giant egg as a gangly, engaging black guy in grey school uniform and glasses, the aesthetically challenged duckling (he's called Gilz Terera) is here the lump that dare not quack its name, unlike his siblings who are all clothes-catalogue pin-ups in half-mast yellow dungarees and trendy baseball caps. The verbal handicap is a mark of his misfit status.

And does he eventually find his own voice? Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak, we would not understand it - but then, old Ludwig hadn't experienced many English pantomimes, poor thing. This very up-market one - directed with exhilarating vim, bounce and impeccable timing by Julia McKenzie - is more fun than The Wild Duck or The Bill, ducky and, as you can see, its determination to get in every animal pun imaginable is catching. Set on a giant bulrush-fringed circular pond in the Olivier, Honk! pulls off the considerable trick of delighting children and winking wickedly at adults simultaneously, without ever resorting to double standards.

The outrageous bits were more to my taste than the faintly sanctimonious numbers where we were assured of every creature's right to be different, rather in the manner of a concert by Barbra Streisand. Jasper Britton's brilliantly funny Cat puts the purr in pervy with his Salvadore Dali whiskers, spats, pinstripes and a dubious liking for young duck flesh. And one's feathers stand on end with joy when David Burt's grinning, bespectacled Bullfrog officiates at a dance routine that brings on the whole cast in tight pond-life outfits (as Kermit used to sing "it's not easy being green.")

Whichever way you slice it, this Ugly Duckling is a Christmas quacker.

Paul Taylor

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