This is one of those reviews I never intended to write, but am doing so purely for my own personal benefit as a matter of historical record. By the time I got round to seeing Honk!, a number of people in the audience for the final matinee performance of this Union Theatre production had come back for seconds (as it were), and as I pointed out on Twitter (that bastion of instant, pithy ‘exit poll’ opinions), my only real regret is that I hadn’t been able to see this show a little earlier. For although I am singing its praises at this point, its run has now come to an end, and its cast and creatives have already partied and parted.
There are several important messages imparted – without being preachy or overbearing – during the course of the show, the most salient being to ensure due diligence is carried out before proceeding down a path with the unfamiliar. Ugly (Liam Vincent-Kilbride, still not out of drama school, enrolled at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) goes off with Cat (Sam Sugarman), enticed by his lure but without repercussions. This reimagining of The Ugly Duckling story, made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, resonates with Andy Room, this production’s director. In a note in the show’s programme, he goes out of his way to deride Brexit and Trump (funny how those things are being blamed for everything from red traffic lights to the weather). They have, apparently, given rise to “cruel and frequently violent sentiments”. Personally, I’m quite sure xenophobia pre-dates Brexit and Trump – examples go as far back as Ancient Greece and the Old Testament – but try telling Remoaners like Room that, and see how ironically cruel and violent the response is.
Anyway, enough about that. It’s a very silly show, but not in an insufferable way. Perhaps the presence of so many attentive children helped to put me in the right sort of mood to enjoy the show for what it is. At the performance I attended, only one child started calling out, and thanks to some responsible parenting (hurrah!) the disturbance was short-lived. There are plenty of puns for both young and young at heart to enjoy, and for those who like seeing performers as musicians at the same time, this was a production that provided that in spades. But as with the 2008 Watermill Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard, there’s a moment when a double bass is carried around the stage, which frankly looked awkward.
I was thrilled to discover that a production at the Union Theatre has finally sorted out the problems musicals have had there with acoustics. So many previous productions there have been marred by not being able to hear vocals properly, even when the band plays with subtlety. It’s still not perfect in this production, but it’s the best sound balance I’ve seen yet from a musical at the Union. Ellie Nunn’s Ida stole the show for me as Ugly’s mother, going out in search for him as though this were a reimagining of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But, in a phrase that seems to be doing the rounds recently, a star is born (or should that be ‘hatched’?) in Vincent-Kilbride, a most suitable cast leader, as committed to the ensemble as he is to ensuring his own assured triple threat skills shine through.
With commendable staging, this is not a wild goose chase (whatever the lyrics may have suggested) but rather, it holds its head up high, unashamedly portraying the joy of motherhood, warts and all, and rightly asserting it takes all sorts to make the world what it is.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.