Volunteer reviewer Lucy saw The Ugly Duckling in December 2022.

There’s an energy that’s usually missing from matinees. An excitability. A rush in the air that swirls like snow or sugar. In contrast to adult shows, the front row is packed. Youths raring to go, guardians in tow. The under-fives are repp’d and rapt except for a querulous couple, who are a bit unsure… to begin with.

But WhatNot Theatre are ready and responsive. They ease the intrepid. They chat and interact with each member of the audience so that everybody, big and little, is prepared. And at the end, it feels as if we’ve all been on a journey, together, with Dotty. A little piece of magic for a frigid afternoon.

The Ugly Duckling is an artisanal and multi-sensory rendition of the Hans Christian Andersen classic. Set on a farm, it is colourful, creative and crammed with kindness. Farmers Mary (Emma Claire Blythe) and Millie (Lucy Hoult) begin the show with agricultural vowels and take us, stage-magically, to the last of Mother Duck’s eggs to hatch.

Light, sound, a washing line and other bits of ingenuity come together throughout the show to make all ages giggle and gasp with wonder. The theatre is keyed-up on thrill, music and delectable little ducklings as the egg hatches, cracking out Dotty (Hoult).

The costumes are stunning, stylish and snappy. I encountered this sort of mounting excitement for each change. Birds are portrayed with fashion, flair and chic. There are no garish, gimmicky animal costumes. Even Henny (Blythe) wears a shawl. I think this definitely added to the overall experience.

Ugly Duckling deals with themes of bullying and diversity. We accompany Dotty on an interactive journey to find out what sort of bird she is, encountering a variety of impeccably dressed and represented feathered friends along the way. Blythe embodies hens, roosters, turkeys etc. with finesse, complete with their own mannerisms, movements, actions and accents. Hoult plays an awkward ‘duckling’ with elegance and whimsy. The physicalities and personalities of these characters are executed with flourish and panache. They are well-formed, inviting and enticing. It is educational, empathetic and the sort of holistic experience that can only occur in theatre. It blows the little ones away, but enthrals even adults and teenagers. It is wholesome and heartwarming, crafted and cultivated.

There’s a lot to be appreciated about it from the adult eye. It contains charming handmade objects, like paper flowers and autumn leaves, that are given out as the seasons alter. There’s a lot of gentle participation. It brings the world to life no matter your age. What might usually feel silly is supported, and urgent. Part of the joy is in joining in.

The Ugly Duckling glows like Christmas lights or a fire in a storm. It is warm and thoughtful, compassionate and cosy. It swims in cheer, good vibes and understanding. It is fuzzy and fluffy and refined. It captivates kids and also their adults. It’s actually worth seeing as a thing of beauty in its own right, sans any little ones. But for small children, it must be an epic and outstanding experience. It would make a banging first show for a toddler. An exciting, enthusing and infusing intro into the possibilities of theatre. I can’t wait to see them again. It actually made me more excited about having a baby. We’ll be rocking to WhatNot. It’s a blessing to learn that there’s good quality children’s theatre that doesn’t break the bank or make your eyes bleed out of your skull.