Pantomime cows and horses are familiar sights on stage at this time of year. But they are not the only quadrupeds treading the boards: Christmas is a time when our furred and feathered friends often take centre stage. Their beastly behaviour, however, is often all too human: a chance for young audiences to see their dilemmas dramatised at one remove.
The Unicorn’s seasonal show Duck! focuses on fowl play at the pond. Here the issues are bullying, prejudice and finding your inner swan. Philip Osment’s new version of The Ugly Duckling is one of the most poignant children’s shows in London this Christmas, but Osment also gives Hans Christian Andersen’s familiar story a gritty, witty twist. He sets his version on Hampstead Heath, where the birds must contend with modern urban living, as well as with their natural predators.
From the moment Mother Duck waddles onto the stage and perches precariously atop the giant egg that dominates the set, we can see that all is not right. Sure enough, the egg hatches to produce Ugly, an ungainly cygnet, whose duckling siblings mock his drab plumage and throaty attempts to quack. School lessons in Quackeracy fail to remedy the situation and Ugly is cast out, until time allows him to fulfil the wish of all bullied victims: to return, beautiful and powerful, and peer down at his tormentors.
Osment has fun with Ugly’s attempts to find a group of kindred spirits and his observations of bird life are amusingly recognisable: coots are hooded thugs, geese are raucous chavs and herons are supercilious snobs. Meanwhile a homeless man, who acts as our guide to proceedings, throws us little crumbs of historical and ornithological information.
The versatile actors in Rosamund Hutt’s engaging production use bathing caps, wellies and frock coats to transform themselves into London’s birdlife, and the show is led by a lovely, gawky performance from Liam Lane. The moment when, in the depths of his misery, he spies a flock of swans and the cast quietly hum the leading theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is unexpectedly moving – even if the swans, in their sharp white suits, appear to be on their way to a 1970s disco.
Duck! does have flaws, however: it is overstuffed with issues and it is not always entirely clear what is going on – smaller audience members may struggle to comprehend why Boudicca’s ghost gets involved. And the same could sometimes be said of Little Wolf’s Book of Badness at Hampstead Theatre: I’d question the decision to deliver a major bit of exposition in a sung letter. But this is a sprightly, appealing stage adaptation (by Anthony Clark) of Ian Whybrow’s popular children’s book.
The story begins by subverting the seasonal injunction to children to be good. Here Little Wolf is a model of good behaviour – to the despair of his parents, who cannot equate nice manners with proper lupine credentials. Little Wolf is despatched to Uncle Bigbad’s Cunning College to learn the Nine Rules of Badness, but his real journey is to discover how to be true to himself and to reveal the limits of the orthodoxy passed down by his parents.
The actors in Clark’s enjoyable production transform themselves into wolves with a few furry touches and make great use of onstage music. Ilan Goodman is an appealing Little Wolf and Grant Stimpson a splendid Bigbad. The climactic song, in which Bigbad explodes after an excess of baked beans, had the primary school audience around me screaming with glee.
To be bad or not to be bad is a conundrum that also produces one of the highlights in Tintin. This ingenious show – a Christmas hit two years ago – is back in London, and as stylish as ever. David Greig’s adaptation fleshes out Hergé’s two-dimensional characters, while keeping their spirit intact, and Rufus Norris’s gorgeous staging whisks us to the Himalayas, where Tintin feels compelled to rescue his friend Chang from a plane crash.
For the adults there is a little meditation on loneliness and Tintin’s need to push himself to the limits. For the children there is plenty of delightful slapstick, a droll climbing song, the bright-eyed Tintin (Matthew Parish), the gruff Captain Haddock (Stephen Finegold), with his unconventional line in expletives, and, of course, Snowy the dog. With a wiggle of the rump here and a tilt of the head there, Miltos Yerolemou becomes the eager little terrier and his crisis of conscience, when he finds Haddock’s discarded whisky bottle, is a joy. Is he a good dog or a bad dog?
There are no such qualms about bad behaviour in Men of Steel at Soho Theatre, only here the subject is not animals behaving badly, but kitchen utensils. This highly eccentric show from Australia features three puppeteers, an array of gadgets and a great deal of mess. A lettuce becomes a pterodactyl and a grinder becomes a space shuttle, as we follow the spectacularly violent adventures of two metal cookie-cutters. The audience is sprayed with sweetcorn, lager, popcorn and ketchup as battles ensue and objects die messily. The inner life of gadgets is revealed: a whisk is French and affected; a metal spoon is military and bossy.
The inventiveness is entertaining, but the narrative is pretty baffling and the endless culinary bloodshed becomes rather wearing. Still, the children around me sat amazed by this gleeful display of deliberate mess-making. What would Santa say?
Unicorn Theatre, London
Little Wolf’s Book of Badness ★★★☆☆
Hampstead Theatre, London
Playhouse Theatre, London
Men of Steel★★☆☆☆
Soho Theatre, London