Finchley & Friern Barnet Operatic Society
Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green
1 April 2014
The Ugly Duckling is perhaps not the most obvious source material for a hit musical, but Honk! came away with an Olivier Award for Best Musical after first hitting the West End in 1999. The well-established Finchley & Friern Barnet Operatic Society certainly have the experience and the charm to pull off this family-friendly tale of love, friendship and tolerance, and overall this is an enjoyable watch.
Vocally, the cast are almost universally strong, but special mention must go to Kim Davidson Rabin as Ida. Probably the most accomplished all-round performer of the night, her clear tones bring clarity, warmth and a genuinely touching quality to every number. As the hapless Ugly, Jamie Wright makes for an endearingly awkward hero with a touch of William Brown in his look; yet this frequently scrunched-up nose and childlike excitement hide an impressive voice, which particularly shines in ‘Now I’ve Seen You’. Having said that, it’s a good thing that this number does sparkle as much as it does, because in general the ‘love story’ element of the show is rather rushed. Perhaps it’s due more to Anthony Drewe’s book than the company’s performance, but it’s worth some more careful attention by a troupe who clearly know their stuff, to prevent it feeling like a last-minute add-on to the story.
As is the norm in am-dram productions, the dancing is what stands out as being rather rough around the edges, with some members of the company clearly leagues above others (although FFBOS do a good job in that the dancers definitely outnumber the two-left-feeters). Yet there are some wonderful comic cameos that keep the laughs coming throughout, notably from Rosanna Cennamo and Carmel Hendry (Queenie and Lowbutt respectively — come on, who didn’t have a snigger at that name…?) and from Chris Henry-Reeve as the Bullfrog, who steals the hearts of the audience with a cheer-raising rendition of the showstopper number, ‘Warts and All’.
Stealing most scenes, however, is David Adams as the Cat. He above all really seems to understand the cleverness and wit of Stiles and Drewe’s score, and makes the most of their bite to make these lines really stand out from the more syrupy stuff going on elsewhere. His accomplished tap dancing adds a new and surprising spice into the mix, and he carries off the role of the evil, hungry, duckling-chasing feline with aplomb.
There are inevitably some niggles, most of which I’d like to put down to first night teething troubles: the lighting lagged behind a bit at times, the orchestra occasionally drowned out some lyrics, and some moments simply came across as amateurish in what is an otherwise polished performance. Yet on the whole, this is a production full of warmth, charm and a whole lot of laughs that is worth checking out.
A word to the ‘ducklings’ — the youngest members of the cast. It’s great to see these youngsters welcomed into the company, and performing with such enthusiasm, musicality and spot-on comic timing. There’s a lot being said about the role of regional theatre, while “London” is often lumped together as a whole by commentators on the subject. Yet it’s important to remember there’s a whole world of local theatre out there within London itself, and it’s fantastic that a company that’s been around since the 1920s is still blossoming and still attracting young performers along more seasoned ones, giving them their first taste of the stage that could kick off a lifetime’s passion for the theatre.
Honk! runs until 5 April at the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green. See the FFBOS website for more info.