The Not So Ugly Duckling – A Play for Grownups.

Sep 2 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Transformative

The Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 26): Tue 16 – Sat 27 Aug 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Not So Ugly Duckling – A Play for Grownups at the Scottish Storytelling Centre by Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell, is a delightful retelling of Hans Christian Anderson from two adept storytellers.

Clifford and MacDonald weigh in casually. They are sitting having a reflective chat on a bench by the port of the Water of Leith. There is a thermos and a homely air of an old friendship, even before a word is spoken.

Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell. Pic Robin Mitchell

Soon, they are telling and acting out the classic Hans Christian Anderson story of the Ugly Ducking. Although, this being a tale for grownups, the details are a lot more brutal than you might remember them from your childhood.

The remembered story points are there – the duckling in the brood that does not fit in, is bigger and not as beautiful. Who goes off on its own and meets a goose, then is cooped up by an old soul in her cottage, before escaping and becoming entrapped in the encroaching ice, paddling around to keep a clear patch of water around them.

For Clifford and MacDonald, though, the starting point is right in front them. The end of the iron pier, where a duck sits nursing her second brood. It’s all so very real. The limit to her world, spread between the quay side and the shopping centre, the surroundings which Clifford points out, all easy to understand.

dispassionately drowned

The darkness of the piece come riding in on the matter-of-fact telling of a duck’s life. Her gang rape by her brother and uncle drakes. The near failure of her first brood leaving her with a single hatchling which she dispassionately drowned so that she might try again.

There is surreal edge in here too – the seagull who squarks “Turkey” at the huge egg that dominates the duck’s second brood. And repeats the accusation (with variations) all through the not-so-ugly duckling’s childhood, as its siblings swim off and are consumed.

Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell. Pic Robin Mitchell

All of which is told in a loving, gentle calmness by Clifford and MacDonald, that is quite out of sorts with the details of nature in its red in tooth and claw realism. Although the duckling’s bolshy youth impinges and disrupts.

The whole piece is enhanced greatly by Ali Maclaurin’s simple set of a large oval carpet which at first you might think of as the sea, but soon realise is a giant egg, tinged blue at its edges. Georgina MacDonell Finlayson musical realism sound design adds another layer to the whole.

Maclaurin’s costumes add much too. Mostly just with hints, but quite dramatically when MacDonell hitches up her skirts to become a most convincing goose and first real pal to the not-so-ugly duckling.

gradual escalation

There is a gradual escalation to pace and movement under Ian Cameron’s direction. Only for Clifford to stop it dead with an explosive gunshot and, when MacDonell protests, the reflection that the wild-foul hunt that kills the goose is “in the story”.

It is in the transformation from the recognisable and contemporary surroundings of Leith docks to those of Andersen’s original tale where this becomes uncomfortable. The tale becomes more complicated than a simple re-location of the original to contemporary times, but a blending of the two.

This disruption affords Clifford the opportunity to take the story’s conclusion in a different direction too, lifting it up beyond the expected to deliver an uncompromisingly up-beat conclusion.

A re-telling which might sometimes be unclear on where its morals and deeper meanings lie, but that is surely the point. And which is always a delight to experience on all levels.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
Scottish Storytelling Centre (Netherbow Theatre) 43-45 High Street, EH1 1SR (Venue 30)
Various dates: Tuesday 16 – Saturday 27 August 2022
Daily (16, 17, 19, 21, 25, 27 Aug only): 16:45.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Show website:

Facebook: @notsouglyduck
Instagram: @notsouglyduck
Twitter: @NotSoUglyDuck

Maria MacDonell and Jo Clifford. Pic Robin Mitchell


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