Though picturebook adaptations are a mainstay of children’s theatre, the role of authors in these productions is often minimal. There can certainly be none who equal the involvement of Polly Dunbar, who not only had a hand in devising this show and making the puppets, but co-founded the theatre company Long Nose Puppets. Their latest production is an adaptation of her most widely-known work, Penguin, which is currently on a celebratory tour to mark the book’s ten-year anniversary.
It’s no surprise to discover the author’s heavy involvement in the show – everything about it exudes a loving affection in its creation, carefully balancing faithfulness to the text with innovation for the stage. The story that the audience know and love – of the little boy who receives a penguin as a present and tries to persuade him to speak – is there, but with some excellent additions, such as Larry Longnose, a banjo-playing onlooker who every so often interjects with a rousing tune.
In fact, the quality of the music is a crucial ingredient. Every song seems to carry the trace of one legend or another, be it the Beatles, Pink Floyd or David Bowie. Composed by Tom Gray from the band Gomez (perhaps best known, at least to ‘90s kids, for Tijuana Lady, one of the many excellent tunes Dom Joly chose for Trigger Happy TV), the artistry of the music is palpable.
Penguin is evidence that love and craft can surpass any gimmicks and gizmos. The show, with its OHP projections and minimalist set, is delightfully old-school. There is a touch of the best classic children’s TV about Penguin: much of it has the gentle pace and soothing tone of Watch with Mother, and the grandfatherly narration of Bagpuss. Better than any gadget is the production’s real understanding of what will engage and delight the young people watching, from the silhouette penguin head that pops up and disappears again prior to the show, to the surprise appearance of a new character mid-way through, and the glowing aliens that hover in the dark as Penguin flies through space. Few whizzbang pyrotechnics can match the glee that these simple moments produce.
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