Mr Popper lives with his wife in Stillwater, the town where everyone will fit in. He is an ordinary painter and decorator who has extraordinary dreams of Antarctic adventures. He wants to be an explorer and travel to the land of snow and ice, to see its penguins. Imagine his astonishment when, one day, a packing crate is delivered to his house from Admiral Drake in the South Pole, and a penguin waddles out!
Mr Popper names the penguin Captain Cook and makes his house into a frozen lair for his Antarctic visitor. When another penguin, Greta, arrives to keep Captain Cook company, the Poppers think they have their hands full. When the penguins have 8 babies, their lives are turned upside down. Chaos erupts in the Popper house as the family of naughty penguins cause all kinds of mischief.
Mr Popper’s Penguins is brought to the stage by Pins and Needles Productions, who are yuletide regulars at Sale Waterside, having previously produced fantastic family adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ The Bear and Father Christmas. They are renowned for their incredible puppetry, and with ten unruly penguins to control, this play is no mean feat. With a small cast of four actors, I am astounded at what they have managed to achieve here.
The penguin puppets are controlled in such a way that you actually build an emotional connection to them. They become characters in their own right, with distinct personalities, and you genuinely start to care for them. Huge credit needs to be given to principle puppeteers, Benedict Chambers and Susanna Jennings for being able to bring such humanity to the penguins, whilst also playing a vast array of different characters. Their vocalisation of Captain Cook and Greta is impressive, creating a convincing penguin sound that perfectly captures their playful personalities.
Will Kelly and Monica Nash both convey a strong bond with the penguins too, as Mr and Mrs Popper get unexpectedly thrust into parenthood. Their connection is so authentic that you forget that the penguins are puppets. I am sure parents in the audience will identify with the couple having their hands full, trying to control a rabble of adolescent penguins.
The mischief that the penguins cause is hugely entertaining. The Poppers’ pet goldfish certainly has a hard time of it. The highlight of the show is when Mr Popper, a painter and decorator, takes them to work with him. Chaos ensues as the penguins wind up with their heads in paint pots, climbing a ladder, and wrapped in wallpaper. The children in the audience loved these scenes, and the auditorium was filled with the sound of laughter.
In addition to being delightfully entertaining, Mr Popper’s Penguins is also laced with heart-warming affection. When Captain Cook gets dangerously ill, Will Kelly‘s Mr Popper cradles him in a quilt and sings a beautiful song that is so touching, it brought a tear to my eye. An SOS message is inventively sent around the world via paper aeroplanes and help is sent from London Zoo. Thankfully, Captain Cook is only suffering from loneliness, which is cured when Greta arrives. The fact that I felt genuinely worried for a puppet penguin is a huge testament to how well Pins and Needles Productions bring them to life.
This production is a musical adaptation of Florence Atwater‘s book. The songs are original and quite catchy. For the show’s opening number, Mr Popper sings of his Antarctic dreams. A grey sheet and a ladder become a mountain, and a white decorating sheet is cleverly transformed into a glacier, before he is brought down to earth. “I’m still me”, Mr Popper sighs regretfully. The closing song encourages audience participation, and will have the kids up doing a penguin dance with the Poppers, flapping their arms like flippers.
Mr Popper’s Penguins is one of the most adorable things I have ever seen on stage. Kids will love it! Even big kids, aged 33+. It has astonishing puppetry, great songs, and entertaining comedy. Most of all, it delivers a heart-warming message of the importance of dreams.
It runs at Sale Waterside Arts until 31st December. There are special Slumber performances, where children can wear their pyjamas and bring their favourite teddy bear. Tickets are available here.