Little Theatre Company
Palace Theatre, Southend
Friday 4th October 2013
Hans Christian Anderson's The Ugly Duckling is a timeless fairytale told to generations of children all over the world, and in 2000 this Stiles & Drewe musical adaptation fought off The Lion King and Mamma Mia! to win the year's Olivier Award for Best New Musical. History has prevailed over the Olivier judges decision perhaps, with Disney and Abba still packing out West End houses 13 years on, but through its popularity with amateur societies Honk! continues to reach audiences.
The show follows the story of Ugly, the last-hatched son to Drake and his wife Ida. With its laudable moral of tolerance - "different is just... well... different" - repeated continuously throughout, the show is primarily aimed at youngsters although there is a speckle of humour for their parents to appreciate too.
LTC's slick production graces the Palace this week, directed with unequivocal skill by Tim Cater. With every scene intelligently thought out, intricately framed and polished to a shine the guiding hand of this accomplished director can be felt throughout the staging. His attention to detail in drawing out rounded and developed characterisations - not only from the principals and named supporting roles but also from every individual chorus member - is absolutely key to the success of this impressive production. Ali Graves' choreography is also well pitched to be consistently achievable by the cast while ensuring a high level of energy and variety in every number.
The set is designed to maximise performing space while also suggesting the edges of the farmyard and lake, with changes in location and the regular split scenes all achieved through the excellent lighting design. For this show the costumes play a particularly important role in the completion of each character, and the choices made by the team at LTC are exemplary. The various birds and other animals are suggested through careful choices of colour and material and the overall clarity of design achieved by the Creative Director with the wardrobe team is a constant delight - outstanding.
Ugly is played with innocence and sincerity by Darren Harper whose bold, smooth vocals are consistently impressive. Darren's wonderfully expressive face and endearingly awkward posture are entirely fitting for the character and combine for an absorbing, polished performance. Stephanie Wilson's mother duck Ida is beautifully sung and tenderly acted, playing the fussy parent with warmth and just enough sentimentality. The Cat is an absolute peach of a character role, and Simon Bristoe seems to truly relish playing the villain of the piece. A tricky comic number in "Play with your Food" he must be careful not to compromise the obvious quality of his voice by throwing away the lyrics, but his lithe physicality suggests a necessary feline quality and his excellent characterisation is wonderfully entertaining.
One of the many performance highlights of this superb show must go to the fabulous quartet of duckling siblings played by Laura Harper, Gemma Carracher, Laurelle Gallimore and Jamie Redgate. Each of these accomplished performers has entirely understood the individuality of their character and they work ideally together as an attention-grabbing chorus. One of the joys of this musical for amateur societies is the array of smaller character parts that can be shared among the group. Shining from among the many examples of LTC talent that can be found throughout the supporting cast is an exquisite cameo from Creative Director Bradley Green. Squeezing every ounce of humour from his scene as Bullfrog, his comic timing is exemplary - a skill that will need to be further developed in some of his fellow members ready for the society's next venture into the riotous world of Avenue Q.
The staging of the curtain call and final number sum up this feel-good production ideally - the cast enthusiactically portray that they are having a fantastic time, and there is no better way to leave your audience feeling just the same. An accomplished production in every sense, both on and off stage - I look forward to seeing this talented society rise to the inevitable challenges of working with unruly puppets in their next exciting production in April.