WOULD YOU VOTE for a simple duck to be your national leader? This bizarre little question comes under the eyeglass in the National Children’s Theatre’s first production of the year. And it’s apt to get many a giggle and a squeal of delight. Duck for President, directed by Matthew Counihan immediately ups the stakes for the theatre’s output: it’s clever and sassy without being obnoxious or skating too high above the children’s heads. But more than that, it features values, harmonies and humour and may have your little one asking questions of a democratic nature.
Something like a cross between Animal Farm for tots and the Grimm brothers’ 1812 story The Fisherman and his Wife, Duck for President is a cautionary tale about the dangers of having too much ambition. The very littlest sproglets in the audience might find the language a tad bewildering, but the clearly honed characters and fantastic cohesion of the work will keep them focused.
And it is superbly cast, with not a glitch in the fabric of the work. Daniel Geddes is Farmer Brown who can take the piano by its proverbial horns and give his farm and his predicament life while singing and tickling the ivories. Because there are live musical instruments on stage, including a ukukele, a tambourine and a triangle, there is no need to ramp up the sound, and the voices of the cast are unsullied by technology as their faces remain clean of microphones.
The farm animals themselves – including a ukulele-playing talkative hen with strong and picky loyalties (Ashleigh Butcher) and a cow who likes her creature comforts (Carmen Tromp) — present harmonies of the calibre of which you may expect from groups such as the Andrews Sisters, and Dolly Louw in the role of the ambitious and clever pig, glows with authenticity and delicious riffs. Listed as the swing on the programme, Rene Setlhako is a little lamb. She doesn’t have much of a speaking role, but what she brings to the collaborative energy and sound of the whole work is precious.
But then, there’s the main man, or rather, the Duck in question. Played by Jay Hlatshwayo, this fowl is all enthusiasm with not much forethought: supported by his loyal farm buddies and advised by his original boss, he’s a cool kind of guy armed with a mix of chutzpah and naivete that gets him waddling around the corridors in the White House.
With a cheeky punt or two in the direction of America’s leadership, the work has a gentle political edge which is more didactic than critical. The whole thing is sewn together with a simple and delightful set, clean bold lighting and costumes that do not compromise the integrity of the individual performers by doing things like slapping them in faux furry onesies, while it still speaks of the essence of the animals as characters.
Musically, the work digresses from the piped songs of the original, and holds its own sense of authority, and with the use of catchy and strong choreography, a clear narrative line and characters your child will fall in love with, this is a ten out of ten production – easily the best work on stage in this city at the moment. Ramping up the value of the platform to include a cast of talented professionals who by and large have been in major productions onstage, it is the kind of work that magnificently honours the legacy of this theatre’s late artistic director Francois Theron, offering the theatre – and indeed, the industry – hope.
- Duck for President is adapted for stage by James E Grote, based on the eponymous children’s novel of 2004 by Dorren Cronin and directed by Matthew Counihan. It features creative input by Daniel Geddes (musical direction), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Philida LeRoux (choreography) and is performed by Ashleigh Butcher, Daniel Geddes, Jay Hlatshwayo, Dolly Louw, Rene Setlhako and Carmen Tromp, at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg until April 7. Call 011 484 1584.