Out with a Duckie
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Out with a Duckie

Spark Festival Delights

Two very different children’s shows but with a narrative connection about being yourself, knowing yourself and being true to yourself.

Strange to think that The Ugly Duckling and Josephine Baker should share a message, but that’s art for you.

Both were presented as part of the annual Spark Festival in Leicester, a collection of activities and events aimed at children.

Duckie, created by Le Gateau Chocolat and presented by Paula Brett, is an heart-warming twist on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, in which a duckling – unable to understand why he isn’t like the other ducks – tries to join various other groups of creatures and learns lessons from, among other, a peacock, seal, mouse, lion and elephant.

Interspersed with lyrically-tweaked songs ranging from Hello, Dolly! and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to Pink’s Perfect (“don’t you ever ever feel like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me”), it’s a perfectly-pitched poignant performance, with Brett showcasing incredible versatility in vocals, wonderful movement and mime, and a great connection with kids while seemingly rarely breaking the fourth wall.

Interestingly, Duckie forgoes the traditional “and turned into a swan” end to the story, to create a piece about acceptance, understanding who you are, and loving yourself nonetheless. It’s a lesson we could all learn from, young and old(er) alike.

As for my almost-nine-year-old, she took from it “that differences are OK and we should all be kinder to each other”.

Amen to that.

The Egg, Wales Millennium Centre and Oxford Playhouse present Josephine

Josephine is undoubtedly for a slightly older audience, although my almost-nine-year-old was engrossed by both pieces. In Leona Allen and Jesse Briton’s play, French entertainer Freda Josephine McDonald returns from “somewhere above” to earth for just one hour and revisits a Baker-themed café, about to shut down.

She meets the two staff members and between them they share stories, re-enact parts of Baker’s life, correct common myths and add some flesh to the bones of others. There are a couple of neat twists to the story, which shouldn’t be spoiled here, but there was certainly much more to Baker than a string of beads and banana skirt.

Ebony Feare is the lithe, sensual and heightened titular character, who acts with every sinew, while Sadi Masego and Jack Benjamin are a finessed double-act with all the banter, conflict and camaraderie of the twosome who run the run-down cafe.

Trying to distil the contradictions and complications of a lifetime into an hour is a tall order, but there’s certainly room to add and develop the piece into a longer play, perhaps including more Baker performance.

Nevertheless, it’s entertaining and educational, and a nudge to look beyond the soundbites into the history of the legends we think we know.