Adapted from the book by Stuart Spendlow, Penguinpig is billed as a cautionary tale about the internet, but it warns more against the dangers of being a busy parent. Apple products add a new spin to a tale that’s at least decades’ old – in fact, there are strong thematic similarities with Anthony Browne’s 1983 picturebook Gorilla. In both, a little girl’s parents are too busy to take her to the zoo, so she goes off on her own adventure with a friendly creature that is far more attentive.
Phoebe is fobbed off at bedtime by her mum, who gives her a tablet to play with rather than telling her a story. But having played every app and scoured the internet, Phoebe is bored: despite her online freedom, she displays a weariness with the world wide web that is probably common amongst young people these days, but impossible to imagine as someone limited to playing a handful of educational Dorling Kindersley computer games growing up. Anyway, eventually she finds something interesting – a Youtube video about a ‘Penguinpig’, a cute creature that apparently eats children’s socks and cleans its teeth with rocks. The video promises that this hybrid animal can be found at the local zoo, but when Phoebe’s parents insist they are too busy to go with her, she takes matters into her own hands.
Traum Theatre uses old-school methods to depict the modern-day machinery – Phoebe’s iPad is made out of felt, and the closest we get to technology is an overhead projector. The traditional storytelling techniques include a ‘Once upon a time’ structure, and the kind of audience interaction that people who don’t watch much children’s theatre probably expect it to have, but is actually pretty rare: “Sit up straight and sing along!” the audience are told. Though the production can feel a bit twee and cutesy at times (particularly during the songs), it helps that Phoebe is spirited, strong-willed and way more clued-up than her parents – her plucky gutsiness stops the play feeling too syrupy.
The puppetry is great – Phoebe really comes to life, and it’s a clever touch that all we ever see of busy Mum and Dad are their legs, like the humans in Tom & Jerry. At first glance the set looks like a classic puppet theatre frame, but a second look reveals a circular indent on the right hand side that looks like a tablet home button, and when a projection screen is pulled down the frame cleverly doubles as an oversized iPad.
Probably the show’s greatest difficulty is that hanging out with her new fuzzy friend seems way more fun for Phoebe, whose parents don’t seem that bothered by her disappearance (or even her reappearance for that matter): unlike Gorilla, they don’t learn their lesson, and there isn’t the same promise of family quality time in the future. Penguinpig himself – every audience’s ideal whimsical playmate – is so appealing as to be a distraction from the story’s didactic aims, so whilst the show’s educational objective might not be met, its entertainment value certainly is.
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