Mary Woodward at the Festivals

The Not So Ugly Duckling: a play for grownups, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Venue 30, Review:

*** (3 stars)

“an uncomfortably accurate account”

Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell meet outside Jo’s flat and watch the ducks on the Water of Leith as they chat about the “wide, wild, world”.  They start telling us an adult version of the Hans Christian Andersen story about the Ugly Duckling who is rejected by the ducks with whom he lives.  After spending a long lonely winter he is joined by a group of swans who tell him “you’re not an ugly duckling, you’re a swan”.  Those of us who are old enough to remember Danny Kaye’s sung version, heard every week on the BBC radio programme “Children’s Favourites” could probably still sing every word – but I guess most people aren’t that old and will simply stare in amazement should I begin…

Proud mother duck Maria makes her nest and lays a succession of eggs – ten in all – before realising that there is still one more to come out.  After much effort, something much larger is laid: a supercilious gull looks on and prophecies trouble, but mother duck Maria insists she wants to keep it…   The other eggs hatch but the mother duck continues to sit on the remaining giant egg ignoring the gull’s criticisms – you’re neglecting the others, where’s the father?, and so on.  Many of the other little ducklings perish as they explore their new world, but still Maria Duck sits on.

Finally the giant egg hatches – a weird, big ugly thing emerges.  Professor Gull, an expert in surviving the relentless challenge of existence, recommends letting nature take its course – “it will spare it so much suffering”.  Mother Maria won’t hear of this and defends her hatchling: but it knows it’s not like the others and sits in a sullen heap – Jo, in grubby whiteish hoodie and jogging bottoms, is the oversized oddity to perfection.

The story continues, and the oddity experiences criticism, other-ing, “expert” advice, mockery, attacks overt and covert, and potential offers of help which are rejected out of fear – thinking that they are false, and merely mask more cruel intentions.  At times the story becomes unbearable, and Jo and Maria intervene, sometimes taking the story in a different direction, but at other times simply saying “but that’s in the story”, and resuming the tale.

It’s not all gloom, and there is a happy ending, though not the one you might expect.  The not so ugly duckling is an uncomfortably accurate account of the experience of growing up different, and the barriers, both internal and external, that have to be overcome on the long journey to become who you really are. 

Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell don’t gloss over the pain and difficulties, but encourage us to carry on, knowing that the struggle to overcome them is worth it as each of us becomes “my own self, beautiful and wild”.    There was much wry, sympathetic laughter from the audience as they recognised the truth of what was being said, and warm applause at the curtain.

The not so ugly duckling is a very gentle show, in strong contrast to the last two things I’ve seen, so it took me a while to scale myself down and relax into the gentle, extremely accomplished storytelling.   I wish I could have given it four stars – what it is saying deserves being trumpeted from the rooftops – but sometimes the quiet, gentle, dripping of water can wear away the toughest of stones.  I can only hope that life is easier for future generations of Different Ducklings.

The Not So Ugly Duckling: a play for grownups, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Venue 30,for tickets go to: The Not So Ugly Duckling: A Play for Grownups | Theatre | Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com)

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