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Theatre Review

Flawed fairy tales

Honk, The Ugly Duckling. National Theatre.

I was about fourteen when I first went to the theatre. It was 1945 and we went to see Aladdin at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I remember the occasion vividly. After the dark, dank dullness of war, the theatre was ablaze with light and colour, and from the moment the band started to play I was enthralled. Of course it helped that periodically half a dozen high-stepping chorus girls would appear, with legs clad in shimmering silk that seemed to go on forever, and invite my intense, admiring gaze. The heroine was wistfully beautiful, the adults simply differentiated by dress, facial expression and body language as either good, bad or comic, and I was quickly lost in the excitement, the glamour, the giddy pleasure of it all, all these people on stage, real people not film stars, performing for us. I wanted it to go on forever.

Two years ago, when our eldest grandson was four, we took him to the theatre. It was not a success. He was too young (and probably too impressionable). The first appearance of Stinky Poo was enough. With rolling eyes and malevolent chuckle, Stinky Poo quickly had Tom hiding under his seat and after the interval he refused to return. Last year was much successful. Tom had seen a video of The Snowman and knew what to expect, but we were a long way from the stage and the impact of the live show was much reduced. Then last week we took him to the National Theatre to Hans Andersen's fairy story about the ugly duckling who turns into a swan, sat him near to the stage and watched and waited. Tom sat in rapt attention, eyes aglow, lost in . . . who knows what? And yesterday, in traditional theatrical fashion, he wanted to reprise the occasion. So my partner and Tom went through the plot and linked it to the twenty-odd scenes that are mentioned in the programme, and their associated songs. He says he wants to go again.

When I was a child there was little theatre for children, but now that children are significant consumers the market has responded accordingly. There are stories especially written for children to which "adults maybe admitted if accompanied by a child", small touring companies specialising in children's theatre, and lots of shows which, like films released under a "universal" certificate, are presumed to be suitable for both adults and children.

Honk is such a show. The National claim that it is suitable for anyone over six, but I'm not so sure. Certainly anyone over six would have no difficulty following the story, but on the other hand they certainly couldn't follow a script which contains many lines with clear adults-only significance. Most films, TV shows, books and theatre are of this kind. The demands of selling the product to a large audience mean that minority interests have to be sacrificed. The script for Honk is arguably less convincing than it might have been, because in trying to ensure wide appeal the writers have come up with something that satisfies neither children nor adults. But then this is how capitalism works. It's not the needs of people that matter, but the profits of the manufacturer.

It's easy to empathise with the ugly duckling. The emotions surrounding the duckling's experience—the insults, the abuse, the threat of physical assault—are not difficult to identify with. The duckling is despised because he is different. Hans Christian Andersen suffered a similar fate. "Gawky, dreamy, pale, weak, disliking the company and games of other boys, Andersen was relentlessly humiliated and bullied for much of his childhood." (Tim Goodwin, 1999.) Others are similarly despised and disparaged because of their colour, or sexual orientation, or beliefs, or accent, or whatever.

On another level, the duckling's world—the place where he is hatched and the farm where he hides—are metaphors for the hierarchical, bourgeois society with which Andersen was only too familiar; not least because he was at the bottom of the pile. As such Andersen's fairy story is based on a substantial social critique. The pity is that it is flawed.

The ugly duckling is eventually transformed into a swan, the implication being that it is to nature that we must look to if we are to know our destiny, and "that inborn qualities are more important than upbringing". However, The Ugly Duckling was written in 1842, long before the importance of environment on human growth and development had been empirically demonstrated. It must be doubtful whether Andersen would have written a similar tale today. After all it's one thing to write a fairy story which sees the lives of farmyard animals in human terms, and quite another to go on believing in the 21st century that nature is the significant determinant of human behaviour. Now that is a fairy story. An unhelpful, anti-working class fairy story, because it denies the possibility of change. No wonder the capitalist establishment is happy to feed Honk to children of all ages.

MICHAEL GILL