In 1993, Honk! had its debut at the Watermill Theatre. Six years later it opened on the West End, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical over The Lion King and Mamma Mia! The defeated are still playing in the West End, but Honk! has not been seen on a London stage since then. This production makes one wonder why that was the result – why Honk! has not been playing continuously over the years. Because it is a wonderful musical, full of heart, and perfect for our troubled times.
They watch with startled eyes. When the Cat threatens to eat the funny, sweet, smiling Duck (who’s probably a Swan but Dad won’t have worked that out), backs go rigid, mouths open. Genuine fear trips across their faces. They nod in complete understanding as Ida searches determinedly for her missing chick, furious with herself because of French Bread distraction. When the happy, attention-seeking Bullfrog hops into the Duck’s world, brows uncrease, smiles widen, giggles emerge. The gunshots scare, the posh indulged pets bemuse, the onset of Winter, and its flurry of whiteness, chills the bones. Mum’s hand is tightly held; a little more room is found on Dad’s seat, just to make sure he is okay. And when the tale is done, happiness of the hands-clapping, point-at-with-glee, always to be remembered, kind.
This is the young, and most important, audience at Honk!, a truly delicious Drewe and Stiles musical, now playing at the Union Theatre in a revival helmed by Andy Room. It has deeply serious themes – bullying, acceptance, the notion of family, adoption, stalking, forgiveness – wrapped up in fluff, feathers and fur, as Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling gets a modern, musical makeover. It has obvious and immediate appeal for youngsters – indeed, this is the kind of production that will plant the seed of interest about theatre in young minds, make them keen for more.
But it is also relevant, entertaining, and thought-provoking for the adults the youngsters take to the theatre with them. Room’s production bursts with charm and joy, constantly engages, and never flags. The warm energy which unites the company is irresistible. This is the best production of a musical at the Union since its new premises flung open its welcoming doors.
Honk! speaks eloquently to all generations, particularly those fond of a fowl joke. If you are feeling down, this is eggsactly the ticket for you. You will emerge sunny-side up, without the slightest scrambled feeling, and even though the interior temperature of the unforgiving auditorium is very hot, you will be neither boiled nor cracked. Although you may be infected with a need to make eggstremely poor puns – no yolk! (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
As a general rule, productions featuring actor-musicians who play the score as well as act, sing and dance leave me cold. The music never seems to be justly and properly served; no reflection, necessarily, on the skill of the performers but a fairly standard complaint. Exceptions include Craig Revel Horwood’s Sunset Boulevard and Thom Southerland’s Ragtime. Honk! takes a clever and pleasing half-way position which reaps dividends.
Led by Musical Director Oli Rew on piano, Joe Pickering (Percussion) and Andrew Richards (Bass) provide fixed position solid musical support for the cast throughout the production. They make a good sound, rich and strong. Balance is occasionally an issue, especially when the cast use instruments to augment the overall effect, but generally speaking the arrangements work and the sense of the melodies and accompaniment, as well as the verve and spirit of the music, is nicely conveyed. It is nice to hear voices in acoustic mode.
The overall design is sufficiently folktale shambolic, and therefore comfortable, persuasive, and piecemeal, to make the occasional addition of extra instruments seem part of the whole story-telling technique. It just works. Sometimes, the presence of an instrument adds something intangible, but beautiful, to the overall picture. When Ugly meets Penny, the exchange of a musical instrument is unexpectedly touching. A part of her music stays with him. Its very clever.
Emily Bestow’s set is really quite lovely, with hay bales, and egg shells, and barn sensibilities that work. She has a real knack for vividly conveying images – her depiction of autumn and winter here is quite magical; improbably, a paper blizzard really seems real. She has fun too with bubble guns and simple props – but it all works, because the overall aesthetic has been properly thought through. Costumes are makeshift, but also striking, although the Cat might have benefited from a specific uniform or outfit which could have been augmented when the actor was doubling up. Putting Ugly in plain grey was very effective, underlining the fact that ugly, as a concept, can mean plain, different or odd.
Another key decision from Room is to have Ugly played by an actor who would easily be cast as Prince Charming. This highlights, in an inspired way, the capriciousness and senseless nature of bullying. Anyone can be bullied, not because of what they are or how they look, but because of how others think they should look or behave. Casting the part this way, with a handsome lad who has a bracing spirit, an open, kind nature, and a winning smile, is genius.
So too is the way Room embraces and justifies the poultry entendres, and the wacky adventures, some of which are frightening or unsettling. The world he creates is whole and once you understand it, its use of puppets (excellent work from Phoebe Hill) and the multiple role-playing of some of the cast, the eclectic, eccentric, patchwork, folktale feel is irresistible and completely beguiling. You just don’t want it to stop, and certainly not for interval.
Room’s casting is also spot-on. Everyone works with commitment and gusto and no one tries to steal the show. There is such generosity of spirit about the performers that their largesse is infectious. This is a true ensemble striving together for the best possible effect.
Nevertheless, this production is also one of those “I was there when” moments of enduring power, because, without doubt, Liam Vincent-Kilbride will be a star. (He has not yet graduated.) He could easily play the title role in Dear Evan Hansen – he is a rare find. He is a calm triple threat, with immense skill as an actor, singer and dancer. His delivery of Different will crack your heart. But it is his complete submersion in the role of Ugly, his unwavering winning-smile spirit, which completely captivates.
His generosity as a performer is exceptional. He makes his mark while ensuring others make theirs. His work with Sam Sugarman’s devious Cat is especially good, and the moment in a blizzard, when he sacrifices everything to save his predator, rings true because of the clear character he has etched deeply. His Ugly is beautiful in every way, and he treats everyone with care and compassion. It’s hard to think of a better role model in musical theatre for young minds.
Vincent-Kilbride uses his native Scottish accent to great effect, and his rendition of Now I’ve Seen You is a genuine show-stopper. His voice is true and his tone bright and soothing. His support work in other people’s numbers is exemplary, a true sign of a real star.
Equally impressive is Ellie Nunn, who is quite marvellous as Ugly’s adoring mother, Ida. In a performance radiating warmth and gentle sweetness, she never falters. She doesn’t play for sympathy, but her honesty gains it unhesitatingly. Every Tear A Mother Cries is an ode to maternal pain, eggsquisitely delivered.
She establishes a sweet rapport with Leon Scott’s useless but manly spouse, Drake, and the differences between them ring true and loud. Scott is funny and quite terrific, especially when whingeing about parental chores. Blissful, rounded performances.
Robert Pearce, Emily Goad and Emma Jane Morton play a varied assortment of other animal characters, all quite excellently. Pearce is particularly effective as Turkey (Don’t mention Christmas) and Bullfrog, Goad is funny as Lowbutt and glistens as Penny, and Morton makes the most of Dot and Queenie. There really is nothing not to like about these careful, intelligent and whimsical performances.
The whole cast gives full justice to Lily Howkins’ splendidly quirky and very physical choreography. Group numbers have particular joy, with The Wild Goose Chase, Together, Warts And All and Look At Him especially memorable. Hawkins has that special skill – the ability to make movement look easy, despite whatever complications underpin it.
Honk! reminds you of what a truly impressive duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are. Great tunes and crisp, happy lyrics. They are an under rated pair of over-achievers and their work speaks eloquently of their understanding of the British spirit. You can’t say that about many writing teams; focus is often placed on universality.
It is long past time for the National Theatre to present a retrospective of their work, reviving their back catalogue and introducing new audiences to their shows. They more than deserve it.
This production of Honk!, with this cast, could genuinely play anywhere where audiences have imaginations and open hearts. The young persons I shared this experience with were truly excited by it. Their instincts and reactions were spot on.
Honk! is a miraculous musical. It should be seen by every child everywhere, as well as any adult who still think difference is something not to be celebrated. Musical comedy at its most healing.