The Ugly Duckling @ Nottingham Playhouse

This adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale is a celebration of individuality as we watch this duckling’s search to find his identity. Combat Bullying, a Nottingham-based charity that provides support for victims, have created a production that puts a fresh twist on The Ugly Duckling at the Nottingham Playhouse, not just to entertain, but to also educate the audience about the very serious dangers of bullying.

The story of The Ugly Duckling is one we are all familiar with. In a house by a river, a mother duck is sitting on her eggs. When they hatch, one of the ducklings is much bigger than the others and has dull grey fur whilst the others are a lovely shade of yellow. He is teased and physically assaulted by the other birds and is unwelcome wherever he goes. After a long winter spent alone in sadness, he looks into the river and sees his reflection. He has grown into a beautiful swan and is accepted into the flock. It is a story about the struggle to find social acceptance and this adaptation highlights how the issue is still as relevant today as it was in the 19th century.

Upstage, there are two scenes cleverly playing out at the same time. Hans Christian Andersen, played by Bradley Price, is stage right and he is writing and narrating the famous fairy tale in the 19th century. Look to stage left and a school child is sat reading a copy of The Ugly Duckling in a library in the present day. This thoughtful decision made by director Nikki Disney illustrates the connection between author and reader, which shows that even nearly 200 years on, Andersen is still helping children accept who they really are.

“It is a story about the struggle to find social acceptance and this adaptation highlights how this issue is still relevant today”

In each scene, a different school child is visibly upset from having been bullied and comes into the library. Although the children are wearing the same school uniform, they have each personalised their clothing to express their individuality. This subtle way of encouraging children to be themselves is an important moral in this play, further demonstrated by cast member Charlie Turner, whose poster displayed outside the theatre studio wisely states “Don’t let being different make you sad.” When each child starts to read the fairy tale, they are plunged into the story and they themselves become the ugly duckling. This intelligent way of making the fairy tale relevant to the present day is effective and each of the young actors play the school child and duckling with confidence and sensitivity.

The six extra young actors that shift between different supporting characters are also marvellous in their physical and adaptable performances. Playing many supporting characters such as the farmer and the old lady, to then expressively portraying the stormy wind, these six children display skills not only in acting but in dance and movement too.

“According to Combat Bullying, one in ten bullied children have attempted to commit suicide”

The penultimate scene of this adaptation is the most moving and it is an intriguing creative decision by Disney. Hans Christian Andersen comes down from his desk, and like the school children before him, immerses himself in the role of the ugly duckling. He wishes to die, part of the story which is eerily relevant today as, according to Combat Bullying, one in ten bullied children have attempted to commit suicide. The use of Andersen as the duckling also possibly alludes to the speculation that Andersen himself was bullied at school, which perhaps explains what makes this story so honest and why it strikes a chord with so many. When realising he has turned into a magnificent swan, the extra characters are used to create huge wings for the duckling, echoing the growth of the character.

Ending the play, the talented Amelia Thorpe performs the heart-warming song “Wherever You Are” which she wrote herself. It sends a hopeful message to the audience, declaring that there will always be there support for those who have been victims of bullying, and that support comes in the form of the very worthwhile charity, Combat Bullying.


Anna Chapman

 ‘The Ugly Duckling’ is running at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 10th October. For more information see here.

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