REVIEW: HONK! (Union Theatre) ★★★


The classic tale of an ugly, little ducking, originally told by Hans Christian Andersen in 1843 is a semi-autobiographical piece. Andersen has been described as “a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet and when he grew up with a passion for the theatre, he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”. Mocking someone for being “different” is sadly not unfamiliar in today’s world culture. In a post-brexit UK and a divided America where truly ugly attitudes have been revealed, a show like Honk which supports the outcast, is more relevant than ever.

Written by the superstar pairing of Stiles and Drewe (Half a Sixpence, Mary Poppins, Wind in The Willows), this intimate revival marks its 20th anniversary. The Union Theatre is a wonderfully snug venue which leaves the front row of the audience within touching distance of the cast. The set was compiled of a dishevelled barnyard (think Judd Fry’s hut in ‘Oklahoma!’) and an elevated platform of around 8ft squared.

The actors multi-role throughout various animals throughout this show but it’s not initially obvious. There isn’t a garish, feathery costume in sight – all the characters are tastefully represented in everyday “human” wear. The cast are also responsible for the scenic transitions and minor set changes. Sadly, this process was not as clean and sleek as it should have been. There were lots of clumsy and avoidable mistakes which would have encouraged this show to have run more smoothly. The acting and musical performances were wonderful but with an un-mic’ed cast, even in such a small venue, it left the cast straining to be heard and battling against each other.

This production features some lovely attention to detail. Ugly’s “moulting” is beautifully represented through the shedding of thick woolly jumpers, scarves and hats and actor Liam Vincent Kilbride’s natural Scottish accent was also used as another way of showing how he’s “just different from the rest”. Unfortunately, the bigger elements of the show were unrefined – such as lost costume pieces, set panels dislodging mid-scene, floor platforms getting stuck amongst others – and so the quieter moments on stage lost their emotional impact as we “recovered” from the mishaps around the scene.

Ellie Nunn makes an admirable effort as Ida channelling her deep emotional distress with poignancy. As her husband Drake and also as Greylag is Leon Scott who was outstanding. Wonderfully funny throughout the show and his Greylag was the best I’ve seen in any production. The rest of the cast all tackled each role well, but it was Robert Pearce’s ‘Bullfrog’ that won the hearts of the crowd.

This production is full of heart and despite its flaws, is still a production with a beautiful story at the centre of it. With a little bit of TLC and more attention to the bigger picture, it would have been a real tour-de-force. Sadly, the cast performances are not enough to elevate this production to its full potential as the flaws lie in the clunky set-pieces and preventable mistakes.

It’s not perfect, but it is different and still worth seeing, warts an’ all.

Reviewed by Harriet Langdown
Photo: Nick Rutter