Duck! relocates panto to Heaton Park

Kevin Bourke

Z-arts Christmas production Duck! sees an alt. version of The Ugly Duckling set in Manchester’s own Heaton Park – with surprising results.

“I want children’s first theatre experiences to be accessible and relevant to their own lives as well as being fun and entertaining,” says Liz O’ Neill, CEO of Z-arts creative space. Like this year’s Big Imaginations children’s theatre festival, in which the Hulme-based Z-arts was a prime mover, the company’s Christmas production, Duck! can’t be faulted in its laudable aims. Following the festive success of last year’s Pinocchio, a thoroughly modern retelling of a classic tale, Z-arts has teamed up with director Julia Samuels from Liverpool-based theatre company Twenty Stories High, along with award-winning children’s writer Philip Osment, to adapt the very familiar tale of The Ugly Duckling. Although the show was originally staged at London’s Unicorn Theatre, its location has been reset to Heaton Park especially for a Manchester audience. Although none of which would matter much at all if the show itself weren’t as beguilingly entertaining as it turns out to be.

Ugly has to overcome squabbling siblings, a less-than-supportive aunt and all manner of fowl things

Narrated by a homeless man – played by Jim Pope – prone to forgetting which part of Ireland he claims to come from, Duck! follows the adventures of Ugly (Nathan Morris), an outcast duckling searching for identity and purpose in an overwhelming world. Along the path to enlightenment, Ugly has to overcome squabbling siblings, a less-than-supportive aunt, a sly fox, a frankly terrifying bird of prey and all manner of fowl things – as well as discover his own missing sense of self-worth. His story runs parallel with that of Zach (Curtis Cole), a young boy coming to terms with his parents’ separation. Then, one Christmas, their lives collide and it’s more than feathers that fly.

Z-arts’ seven performers play 36 different characters between them. Inevitably, some are more convincing than others, but their versions of various birds are especially impressive. There’s original music and beatboxing from Jason Singh, who takes influences from dubstep and hip-hop and remixes them with the score of Swan Lake to create a live soundscape, complete with quacking. It’s all great fun and a fine example of a truly contemporary theatre experience for children and families. Oh yes it is!

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