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Duckling delights

CHRISTMAS THEATRE

The Ugly Duckling is a masterpiece of children's theatre
The Ugly Duckling is a masterpiece of children's theatre

The Ugly Duckling

The Arches, Glasgow

Until December 30

The Polar Bears Go Wild

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Until December 30

Reviewed by Mark Brown

An Arches/Catherine Wheels co-production of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, retold by Andy Manley and Shona Reppe, this staging of The Ugly Duckling is the Scottish children's theatre equivalent of having Muse, Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds on the same bill. Bringing together the talents behind such shows as Hansel And Gretel, White and The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean was almost guaranteed to lead to something special – and so it proves.

From the moment the show opens in an animals' maternity ward (where a pig and a horse become proud mothers before Mrs Duck's eggs hatch one by one), the young audience aged three and upwards is enthralled by the piece's winning combination of bold humour and inventive theatricality. After the avian mum gets her perfect yellow ducklings in a row, she discovers that the final hatchling (a huge, grey, bespectacled Laurie Brown) is abundantly not like the others.

Supported brilliantly by co-actors Gill Robertson and Veronica Leer, Brown's uncomfortable and geeky outsider rises above prejudice and ill-treatment only when dancing to the likes of Van McCoy's 1970s disco hit The Hustle and The Village People's dancefloor anthem Go West. Watching this ugly duckling changing into a swan is like witnessing the transformation of a trenchcoated Frank Spencer into Julian Clary resplendent in full drag.

Any three-year-old sharp enough to pick up on the anti-homophobic theme should be fast-tracked into the nearest university, although this production is still unlikely to endear itself to the anti-gay marriage brigade. Meanwhile – back in the kinder, gentler world of The Arches – The Ugly Duckling deserves plaudits galore, whether for Manley's directing, Reppe's designs or Darren Brownlie's camp choreography. This is Andersen with balls: disco balls!

There is humour of a more modest, lest energetic kind in The Polar Bears Go Wild, a co-production (for kids aged up to five) by the Macrobert and Fish And Game. Performed by its creators, Eilidh MacAskill and Fiona Manson, the show stars two neatly costumed polar bears (with little painted black noses). They are called, straightforwardly enough, Big Polar Bear and Little Polar Bear.

Suspiciously domesticated and quasi-human (although slightly more bearish than Mr Polaro, who finished his run in Frozen Charlotte theatre company's Too Many Penguins? at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre yesterday), these bears are endearingly characterised adventurers who, with map and rucksacks, take to the wild with amateurish enthusiasm.

Like Too Many Penguins? (which seems, in many ways, to be the inspiration for this show), MacAskill and Manson's performance eschews language, preferring instead the sights and sounds of their simple journey, from a smartly musical packed lunch to the lovely transformation of foil into Arctic ice. However, if the piece shares some of the strengths of the Frozen Charlotte production, it also amplifies its only noticeable weakness; namely, insufficient interactivity.

Recommended for children aged two to five, the show enlivens its young patrons at the beginning, when they meet the bears, and in the moment when the adventurers clamber through the auditorium. However, for the most part the show requires that a passive audience simply watch and listen. This works rarely, if ever, with two-year-olds and only with three-year-olds if (as with The Arches' show) your production has an eye- and ear-catchingly high tempo.

The Polar Bears Go Wild, for all its loveliness, is simply too placid to keep the attention of its youngest audience members. Little surprise, then, that when I saw it in a theatre full of nursery school children, there was much wriggling and an inordinate amount of toilet-visiting.

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