DOES The Ugly Duckling, the story by Hans Christian Andersen dating back to 1844, still have a message for today’s children?

“Yes, definitely. For one thing it’s a timeless story, but also timely because we are hearing a lot about accepting because they are different and helping them find a place in the world,” says Emma Reeves, who has created the latest version of the famous tale.

Leeds-based company tutti fruiti open a massive UK tour at York Theatre Royal on September 28.

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Reeves, who recently adapted Jacqueline Wilson’s novel Hetty Feather for the stage, says: “The Ugly Ducking story has been adapted so many times that each new version has to be filtered through the times and eyes of the people making it. One of the things I was keen to avoid our version saying was the idea of biological destiny... that you belong to your biological parents.

“I was imagining someone who has been fostered or adopted watching it. It’s great that our character Ugly turns out to be a swan, but I was interested in how he relates to the other ducklings after that. He would still have a relationship with his adopted duck mum.”

Asked if today’s political correctness frowned on calling someone Ugly, Reeves replies: “We’ve gone straight to the word Ugly and that’s the name of our character given to him by his brothers and sisters. He has a whole song about coming to terms with this and deciding that what is more important is what is on the inside.”

She does joke that she found it hard to get Danny Kaye’s Ugly Duckling song out of her head while creating the stage play. “But the song tells the whole story so brilliantly that it would be all over in five minutes,” Reeves jokes.

With a recommended audience of 3+, the most difficult part of creating work for children is the on-going pressure on schools and playgroups to focus on core subjects rather than the creative arts.

“I think this production is small-scale, with three actors playing all the parts although we also have some duckling puppets. A lot of imagination comes into play and I hope that will inspire the children. We did have a conversation during research and development on this subject and what I feel is interesting about schools is the way that art can become half-hearted and elitist. Some children are talented at music and drawing, and the ones that aren’t are told, ‘Never mind it’s not your thing’. We don’t sort of let off someone who is not good at maths in the way. You have to keep studying until you’ve learned it. Quadratic equations don’t really help most people after school. Learning a musical instrument is a skill where you’ll be able play a guitar at parties for the rest of your life,” says Reeves.

She’s delighted that tutti fruiti artistic director Wendy Harris, who directs Ugly Ducking, asked her to take on the project alongside other classic works like Little Women and Cool Hand Luke for the stage. With Hetty Feather about to tour again, Reeves is hoping to follow her award-winning CBBC series Eve with further greenlit BBC productions this year.

“I also can’t wait until Theatre Hullabaloo opens its Darlington theatre this year and offers another venue for children’s productions,” says Reeves.

  • Danny Childs plays the Ugly Duckling with Daniel Naddafy as Goose, Fluffy, Swan and Cat and Maeve Leahy as Mum and Dog.
  • York Theatre Royal Studio: todaySeptember 28 to October 14. Box office: 01904-623568.

Then touring nationally followed by a visit to Singapore in 2018