Beside an ice-covered lake, a lost rejected duckling stares skyward at the migrating swans, yearning to belong and marvelling at their beauty.
Hans Chritian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling is one of those classic children’s stories that never go out of fashion.
But how do you bring something new to a tale that has been told to their sons and daughters by generations of parents?
That was the challenge facing Wrexham-born writer Emma Reeves whose new version of the Ugly Duckling arrives at Theatr Clwyd from November 15-17.
“I remembered The Ugly Duckling as a comic, bubbly and ultimately uplifting piece about identity and finding your own place in life,” says Emma.
“But when I came to read Anderson’s original story, I was struck by the potential darkness lurking in the material.
“Could anything be sadder, especially for a child, than to be rejected by your mother, brothers and sisters? And will the Ugly Duckling really be better off living as a swan?”
Looking at themes of fitting in, bullying and self-discovery, Emma also worked on elements of design, movement and puppetry as the team behind the new production attempted to channel their own inner ducklings.
“Whenever you’re telling a story you just have to tell your version,” she says. “The particular challenge with this production is we have just three actors playing all the parts .
“We’re telling a story about someone who doesn’t fit in with their peer group and I think our story is very much about family and growing up.
“In our version mummy duck is kind and tells the ducklings it’s is not what you look like that’s important, but what you do.
“It was important to me to also look at what happens after the ugly duckling becomes a swan – is that the end of the story?
“In our version the swans are like celebrities so I wanted him to keep in touch with mummy duck even after he had become a famous swan!”
The resulting production is another success for 43-year-old Emma who has become one of the UK’s most sought after children’s playwright and television writers.
In 2014 she adapted Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather for the stage and was subsequently nominated in the Best Entertainment and Family category at the 2015 Olivier Awards before going on to write some episodes for the television version of the much-loved children’s drama.
Her other stage adaptations include Carrie’s War, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Cool Hand Luke and she also co-created and wrote the hit CBBC series Eve.
Other TV credits include The Dumping Ground, Tracy Beaker Returns, Young Dracula and Sadie J.
“I sort of fell into it,” she laughs. “I was an avid reader as a child and one of the best things I’ve been able to do is to adapt things I read when I was younger.
“As a child, I read the first three books again and again. And in 2014, when I was asked to adapt The Worst Witch into a new series for CBBC, there was an additional thrill in discovering that four new books had been published since I had grown up.
“I’ve got lots of nieces and nephews and I test my ideas out on them.
“One thing you learn is that all children are different. Some are scared by different things for example and I’m really pleased that the Ugly Duckling is coming to the Theatr Clwyd because my sister’s three children are aged between three and seven so they’re just
right for it.”
Once the curtain comes up it will mark an emotional return to Mold for London-based Emma who is one of Theatr Clwyd’s many esteemed alumni.
“I’m thrilled to be coming back especially as the Ugly Duckling will be in the Emyln Williams Theatre where we used to do our shows with the Youth Theatre,” she remembers. “It will bring back so many memories.
“It was a great place to learn about theatre: I was in Guys and Dolls, A Comedy of Errors and Nicholas Nickleby which was an incredibly ambitious project that took place over two nights with 40 cast members.
“It was an amazing experience to take part in these shows and they were all in that theatre so it will be so exciting seeing the Ugly Duckling there.”
l Ugly Duckling is at Theatr Clwyd from November 15-17. Shows are at 10.30am / 1.30pm / 4.30pm. Recommended age: 3+. For more information and tickets go to: www.theatrclwyd.com