As aimless theatrical events go, you could do worse than “Ducktastic,” a self-described “comedy spectacular” that in truth feels closer to an elaborately produced college revue. Hamish McColl and Sean Foley’s first West End entry since “The Play What I Wrote” is best approached with a couple of drinks under your belt (late start of 8:15 helps) and a thirst for cheesy gags.
Despite an opening delayed two days (show, unusually for the West End, bowed with a Wednesday matinee), helmer Kenneth Branagh’s production gives off the air of a work still in progress. You smile often, sometimes chortle, and just as occasionally wince.
“The Play What I Wrote” transferred to Broadway, a gallant move given its genesis in the output of two British comedians, Morecambe & Wise, whose fame never crossed the pond. “Ducktastic” has a source of sorts in Vegas illusionists Siegfried & Roy, though one need hardly know as much to follow the goings-on.
A series of sketches interspersed with sonorous narration from, wait for it, Al Pacino (as voiced by Brit thesp John Sessions), show builds to a climax unleashing the closest you’ll ever come to a chorus line of ducks. Our feathered friends are cute without being cloying and predictably audience-pleasing, too: Look for an increase in vegetarian dishes at nearby eateries.
“Ducktastic” begins with the husky tones of Sessions’ Pacino welcoming us to “the galaxy of dreams,” though not before intoning a dangerous question: “Why are you here?” Barely has one formulated a response when two enormous webbed feet appear from the flies, and we glimpse the mother of all ducks. (None of the British end-of-pier venues that seem this show’s logical destination is likely to have designer Alice Power’s kitschily overripe resources.)
The human component of the tale involves Christopher “Ursula” Sassoon (McColl), a Vegas habitue back in London after a breakup with his wife. In need of a cohort in showbiz crime, he finds one in Portsmouth pet-shop owner Roy Street (Foley), who gets plucked from the audience to equal parts glee and chagrin. “I’m so nervous, I’m hyphenating everything,” says Roy, who takes to the spotlight like, well, a duck to water.
In the course of events, he battles a notably resistant (and noisy) fourth wall, participates in a knife-throwing exercise and gets shot out of a cannon: Behind every meek spectator, presumably, exists a game magician.
Throw in a starry-eyed usherette, the inevitable cross-dressing and a cornucopia of awful puns (Ginger Rogers is bawdily presented as a complete sentence), and you have a theatrical potpourri about little more than its own lunacy.
At times, “Ducktastic” makes clear its grander aspirations as some kind of parable of transformation: Sassoon, in dressing as a woman, learns to understand the fairer sex, while Street blossoms and finds love under the watchful beak of Sabre, the 11th-hour star duck. (Or so we’re told: Original avian lead Daphne reportedly was abducted just prior to opening, in a press gambit in keeping with the spirit of the show.)
If only “Ducktastic” were structured strongly enough to become more than the sum of its scattershot parts. Branagh’s direction tips its hat to Dame Edna-style hijinx one minute, magic tricks by way of Doug Henning the next. The fact is that for every sweet-natured bit of wordplay (“Does badness defile me, or does goodness gracious me?”) comes another that’s distinctly shopworn.
The choreography by Michael Rooney (son of Mickey) makes good use of the rubber-limbed Foley, and the supporting cast brings real professionalism to a celebration of amateurishness that is distinctly English — Alex Kelly is particularly winning as the theater usher who packs a killer ice-cream cornetto.
But there’s no getting around the shapelessness of skits that tend to crash to a halt with the line “That, ladies and gentleman, is ducktastic.” More attention, it seems, has been paid to props and special effects than to the material itself. (Carly Simon song lyrics scarcely seem apt comic fodder these days.)
The best comedy for all its zaniness has an innate discipline, as Morecambe & Wise themselves knew. “Ducktastic,” by contrast, scurries hither and yon in search of a laugh, rather like those scuttling innocents that give the show its name. You alternately grin and sit stone-faced through two short, if seemingly padded, acts that might benefit from a bit more time in the barnyard of inspiration.