Duck is currently on the menu at the Albery Theatre. Now before I get inundated with protestations from veggies, vegans or animal rights’ activists, I should hastily point out that it’s the live variety which I’m referring to in this particular instance, and not the ‘à l’Orange’, or Jamie Oliver ‘pan fried’ versions. And in case I leave you with any doubts later on, it’s the avian thespians in this production that most definitely turn out to be the show stealers rather than their human collaborators, confirming the dictum ‘never work with children and animals’.
Defined in the programme as a ‘comedy spectacular’, ‘Ducktastic’ might be more aptly described as a flight of fancy from the quills of the writing duo Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, who managed to feather their nests by penning the hugely popular, and Olivier award-winning show ‘The Play What I wrote’, which ran for over a year in London and went on to receive considerable acclaim on Broadway. This time round, McColl and Foley have contrived a ludicrously fowl plot which hangs together largely on ‘a wing and a prayer’.
Magician and illusionist Sassoon (Hamish McColl) is performing his act at the ‘Allberry Theatre’, along with various little-known performers, most of whom seem to hail from the more remote regions of eastern Europe. Sassoon is a little past his sell-by date, and hankers after the days he spent in Las Vegas with the girl he loved. To perform one of his illusions, he calls on a ‘member of the audience’ to assist. As it happens, Roy, a pet shop proprietor from Portsmouth (played by Sean Foley) has just taken his seat in the front stalls carrying a house-plant. “We can’t have a plant in the audience” says McColl, which gives you an indication of the kind of outrageously corny joke which is liberally littered throughout the show. And the jokes get worse as the evening wears on, and of course they get funnier as they get more tortuous. For example, in the second half when McColl has been changed into a woman, he’s told to imagine he’s ‘in an Egyptian river’, to which he replies “I am not in denial”. And that’s not the best or the worst, I can assure you.
Having been seconded from the audience, Roy is rapidly promoted to illusionist’s assistant, and soon finds himself being shot from a canon, and taking part in various other hilarious illusions set in locations such as the Garden of Eden. As the show progresses, an usherette and her parents are gathered into the plot.
As the action shifts between the ‘stage’ and the theatre’s dressing rooms, we soon learn that the success of the illusions is being controlled by Dafney, the illusionist’s duck. I won’t spoil the surprise completely, but it should be enough to say that Dafney has more than a single word of dialogue to learn.
During scene changes, a voice over discourses on a wide assortment of subjects (I’m sure I heard senapods mentioned at one point) that adds to the rather bizarre nature of the script as well as the plot in general. For example at the beginning of the show, he asks “Why are we here?” With a little thought, one might have been able to predict the somewhat obvious answer delivered in song at the end of the show - ‘duck knows’!
Judging by the audience’s reaction, it looks like McColl and Foley have another hit on their hands, and deservedly so because they’re a fine comic team who know how to work an audience and milk their script for every last drop of humour. And they’re also consummate professionals with the ability to cope admirably with the unexpected. At one point, as McColl fell back onto the sofa in one of the dressing room scenes, he inadvertently kicked Foley in his ‘meat and 2 veg’, causing both of them to ‘corpse’ as well as bringing tears to Foley’s eyes. His quick-witted ad-libbing in the face of considerable pain covered the break allowing them to recover and the action to proceed.
I’m not sure how Kenneth Branagh managed to keep his sanity directing this venture, particularly considering the demands of giving notes to our ‘feathered friends’. However, it’s cleverly and meticulously orchestrated, and capitalises on the gifted mime and movement skills of the leading men, as well as the excellent magic of Simon Drake (which is his real name and not another of my awful puns).
As the stars – a seemingly endless ‘safe of ducks’ – waddle across the stage to take a polished if rather frantic curtain call (or should that be ‘duck call’) – one is reminded that throughout the show there’s a faint whiff of the farmyard in the air. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a new genre – organic theatre!
‘Ducktastic’ is an immensely enjoyable bill of fare that’s suitable for all the family, making it a ‘must see’ as we enter the annual panto season. Put quite simply, it’s QUACKERS!
[Vocabulary note: according to the ‘Concise Oxford Thesaurus’, the collective name for ducks on water is a ‘paddling of ducks’. When on land – as is evidently the case of ducks engaged in a theatrical production – the correct term is a ‘safe of ducks’. However, the thesaurus adds that many collective names are ‘fanciful or humorous terms which probably never had any real currency but have been popularised in books such as Sports and Pastimes of England – 1801 – by Joseph Strutt’].
What the critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLER for THE INDEPENDENT says, "I have to register a certain disappointment with Ducktastic...very hit-and-miss." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The particular joy of this show is that it mixes slapstick, innuendo and song with a simultaneous celebration and exposure of stage trickery." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Comes with puns, double entendres, verbal cock-ups and silly jokes galore." BRUCE DESSAU for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Makes you grin constantly for two hours...Maybe not the peak of perfection, but certainly a wonderful webbed feat." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Ducktastic creates a glow of communal pleasure you could warm your hands by."