withWings’ The Duck Pond: More Than An Ugly Duckling

withWings are one of those rare student companies that manage to excel themselves production after production. 

withWings are one of those rare student companies that manage to excel themselves production after production. 

Last year they performed a wonderfully inventive physical theatre adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titled If Room Enough, featuring a beach hut, a washing machine, and a great original score.

This year, the group is back at the Edinburgh Fringe with The Duck Pond, a spectacularly creative re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

A quacking good time

It’s Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday, and despite the fact that he really doesn’t show an interest in women, his mother Queen Hildegard (Kitty Murdoch) is putting pressure on him to marry one. She plans to throw a ball to introduce her disinterested son to a whole host of suitable beauties, despite his comical resistance to the plan. 

In the meantime, though, apparently eager to confuse her only child still further, she takes him to visit the traveling fair he loved so much as a boy. 

Once there, the celebrations and stagecraft are wonderfully exuberant, with carnival-esque music, inventive choreography, presents handed to the audience, and even cake for those in the front row. 

At night, though, is when the real magic begins.  

All the fun of the fair

As darkness falls and the carnival atmosphere subsides, our Prince (James Bennett) finally falls in love: with an enchanted rubber duck called Odin (Tom Coxon). No, really.

Odin has been cursed by the wicked magician and owner of the fair, the sinister Russian Rothbart (Tom Figgins). By day, our prince’s love is a plastic duck just waiting to be hooked, but as the moon rises, he returns to his human form. 

It is wonderful nonsense, and you can’t fail to notice the nod to Tchaikovsky’s apparently closeted homosexuality. By making their duck a drake, withWings tell the kind of love story that would have been forbidden when the ballet was first produced. And tell it well they certainly do.

An enchanting six notes

Halfway through the performance, the company receive an irate phone call from the famous composer, and tell him firmly that they won’t be paying him any performance rights. Why? Because they’re only using his six most famous notes!

Their sparing use – sung by the company, played on a music box, and even created by the audience on glasses filled with water – serve the same function as they did in the original ballet. 

They foreshadow the heartbreaking ending and echo its inevitability: because for The Duck Pond as it is for Swan Lake, true love cannot triumph over tragedy.  

Masterful handling of tone

For me, Odin the Duck deserves a special mention for being quite so delightfully endearing. Coxon is able to switch from playing the naively playful boyfriend, to a heartbreaking final scene which will bring tears to even the driest of eyes.

As you’d expect from a ballet adaptation, there is a certain amount of dancing which adds beautifully to the aesthetic. But The Duck Pond, if it fits into any category at all, is less a dance piece and more a tragicomedy for the 21st century.

The wonderful chorus of courtiers and fairground workers are played by a phenomenal ensemble, whose comedic moments give repeated relief from the darker undertones of the play. 

Their well-choreographed stagecraft and audience interaction are a delight to be a part of, and a new musical  score played live on-stage is an enthralling mixture of folk, rock, and cabaret.

A tragedy

Thankfully, the only tragedy in this play is that it inevitably ends too soon – not just for the star-crossed lovers, but for everyone watching.

Time flies when you’re having fun, and the pace, staging, performances, and sheer inventiveness of this adaptation, are stunning.

If you’re at the Fringe and you don’t get to see this show, I can honestly say that you have missed out on one of the best productions on offer this year. 

And that would be the real tragedy. 

NB: withWing’s The Duck Pond will be performed until the 24th August at 18:00 (1 hour 10 minutes) at Bedlam Theatre. Have your say in the comments section below.