This production of The Ugly Duckling was the first collaboration between Travelling Light and the Tobacco Factory ten years ago, a partnership that has produced much great theatre over the years, including the Offie-award-winning Cinderella. Its original director, Sally Cookson, has gained national recognition with shows such as Jane Eyre, and this revival boasts a lovely symmetry in that it is Craig Edwards, who played the Ugly Duckling in the original show, who has re-directed this version. His staging brims with characteristic Travelling Light joy, and while it may not quite reach the heights of some of their other shows, it is still an absolute delight to watch.
The story is a familiar one – Duckie is born looking unlike any of their ‘siblings’, and while Mother Duck tries to convince them of their true beauty, they end up going on a great journey, before growing into an elegant swan. This tale mostly serves as a framing device for a wide range of songs, clowning, music and movement. These are often fantastic, with Benji Bower’s music (performed by Brian Hargreaves), ranging from the subtle and atmospheric to jazzy dance tunes, often raising proceedings to joyous heights.
This episodic structure, however, does mean that some sections are less successful than others, and some otherwise lovely moments run too long. When this happens, the driving force of the story gets a little lost, and the attention can occasionally wander. The emotional arc of the plot is never dulled, though, with Mother Duck’s (Heather Williams) songs to Duckie almost shockingly moving in what is mostly a buoyant, carefree show.
So much of how well the characters connect with each other and with the audience is due to the fantastic performances. Emily May Smith as Duckie is the star of the show, infusing her performance with infectious glee and adorable naivety, from her off-key honks to her awkwardly placed feet. Completing the quartet of actors is Heidi Niemi, playing everybody else. Her complete physical transformation for each role is impressive, and for me her Grandmother is a particular highlight, somehow managing to remain adorable while threatening to eat the protagonist.
Katie Sykes’ design is clever and simple, with blankets turning into farmyards and upturned stools helping form swamps. Surely the highlight, though, is the swans, at various points shown through flapping white umbrellas (which served so perfectly as a auditory as well as visual metaphor), and through dapper white top hat and tails outfits.
What is a little surprising about the show, given both that it is based on a fable and that it is a family Christmas show, is that it doesn’t really try to deliver a moral. Even the classic message of accepting your inner beauty is applied lightly and occasionally. Instead, it focuses on the joy of the storytelling itself, which produces a really lovely theatre-going experience that at times made me feel as innocent and wide-eyed as the duckling itself.
The Ugly Duckling is at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol, until January 14th.