These are difficult times. Rehearsals are problematic with social distancing and theatres are largely making it up as they go along. It’s a steep learning curve and some slack must be cut.

With this in mind, I watched HOME’s festive offering for children, the second streamed theatre show I’ve seen from the Manchester arts centre. But Duckie is not a child of these unique times. It was recorded at the Southbank Centre in London in 2016, so the show has been bought in by HOME to fill a programming hole in the way that it might bring in a tour, which, given what I’m about to say, is disappointing.

Duckie is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, the quintessential story of early social rejection, existential growth and social triumph. It’s a perfect fable to celebrate the joy of difference and is frequently adapted for the stage. As with much of Andersen, the story darkens with a couple of the duckling’s new friends being shot by hunters mid-quack. So the task before the adaptor is to make this story about the adversities of life into an amusing, not-too-upsetting journey into swan-hood.

In this version the eponymous duckling is played by Cabaret Superstar Le Gateau Au Chocolat, who also co-wrote the show with director Tommy Bradson. Le Chocolat has an impressive CV of international cabaret, drag and singing gigs (he has a fabulous baritone voice) and has worked with some of the best including La Clique. His experience as a black gay man (he was severely bullied at school) informed the choice of material and he developed the show to help his niece with similar difficulties. He says: “Duckie isn’t just about standing up to your bullies, it’s also about making sure that you don’t become a bully yourself.” Which is great, except that the production presented here falls short of that ambition.

The format – a film of a live performance of the show at the Southbank – may be to blame. One of the current challenges facing theatres is to continue to deliver programming while not being able to use their auditoria, which means they must resort to digital streaming. That’s all well and good except that the viewer is accustomed to state-of the-art film and TV, which uses a myriad of techniques to make the audience feel engaged – including expensive techniques requiring more than one camera, good lighting and a lot of time and money. Anyone who has seen NT Live knows how well it can be done.

This performance was filmed with a single camera so you don’t get cutaways and close-ups, and it’s underlit which means that some action is lost on the viewer. There are moments when Le Chocolat discovers things in the piles of stuff on stage which, live, might have surprise and charm, but they are in the dark and lost here. The lack of attention to this kind of detail suggests this might even be an archive recording for company purposes rather than for public distribution.

Duckie-Capture-241cred.Manuel_Vason-940x460I cite as evidence that this version was filmed in 2016, but the show went on to be chosen as one of The Guardian’s top six shows for children at the Edinburgh Fringe (remember that?) in 2018. Even given The Guardian’s untutored attitude to children’s theatre, it’s hard to see how this production secured that rating. The second iteration might well have been a very different show.

And I have issues with the show itself. I’m not sure who it’s for. The performance is driven by an unseen, uncredited, pre-recorded narrator, which is always a problem with audiences of young children who don’t necessarily associate the voice in the air with the action on the stage. And there are gags, including one based on the ‘f’ word, which are inappropriate. The music, songs from Sondheim, Disney, and Cyndi Lauper among others, show off Le Chocolat’s voice – although not nearly enough – but are a bit lost on children. Sometimes the singing overlaps the narrator, which is probably alright in the room, the ear will distinguish the two, but on film it’s just noise.

All in all this is poor stuff from HOME. It has a well-deserved reputation for modern, challenging, technically audacious theatre. This is none of those things. I assume time and money got in the way, but it would have been nice if it had commissioned some local artists to make a similar show (Oldham Theatre Workshop for instance, which produces an excellent show every Christmas on an absolutely tiny budget) and invested a bit more in the filming.

If you want to see how this should be done, watch the stream of The Snow Queen with the wonderful Polly Lister from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor