James Gurd’s production of Tom Wells’ Me, As a Penguin may present itself as a “bashful” and “whimsical comedy”, but it packs a hidden emotional punch.
I had no idea what to expect from this production. The leaflet advertises an array of “knitting, penguins and Battenburg cake”, a promise which was surely fulfilled by the show. However, beyond this I had no clue what I was getting into, but by the end of the evening I had rather enjoyed myself.
The play opens with Stitch (Peter Todd), a young gay man living in Hull, denying his heavily pregnant sister Liz (Jennifer Crompton) entry to their bathroom. Whilst I won’t spoil the contents of said bathroom, the play grows from this point into an absurdist comedy all taking place in the confines of a small, well-worn living room. Todd and Crompton had great chemistry, and I could tell Liz was the long-suffering older sister from their first moments on stage, whilst Todd as Stitch oozed social awkwardness and insecurity. Both actors had to handle both emotional storytelling and comedic timing, and Crompton particularly excelled here, making Liz’s humourous dialogue appear incredibly natural throughout.
The characters are also joined by Liz’s layabout husband Mark (Martin Parker) and Stitch’s sexual partner Dave (Charlie Wade). Parker was particularly surprising to me; before his arrival, Liz built up a picture of a “vulture in a Renault Clio” and I was almost disappointed at first to see a lack of menace in Parker’s portrayal. However, Mark was a crucial character in exploring gender roles within our society, and Parker infused the character with a level of charm and vulnerability as he navigated the fears of being a new father, and I soon understood Parker’s flippant, humourous delivery. On the other hand, Wade created an almost lovably despicable character in Dave, the loutish penguin handler at the local zoo (sorry, aquarium, as the characters often assert). Dave is almost the antithesis of Mark, with a hardened exterior and intolerant attitudes, particularly towards women. Wade brings a lot of energy to a piece that can, at times, feel slightly lethargic, and it was fun to hate him. Overall, I think the cast did a great job in their respective roles, though I must admit Crompton stole the show for me.
The overall style of the piece was the only part I questioned, as the slow, quiet scenes seemed at odds with the “bashful” description on the leaflet. The production certainly excelled most when music was involved; the use of Lipps Inc’s ‘Funkytown’ and the discography of Kate Bush brought a lightness and sense of fun to the occasionally heavy scenes, and dance/physical theatre to show the character’s internal emotions added texture to the performance, whilst also displaying the actors’ skills. The small, intimate theatre space of the Burton Taylor Studio increased the audience’s connection to the characters, allowing the audience to empathise with them, but it perhaps did make the piece feel limited in its scope. There were also few changes in the way of lighting or costume; the focus was placed (rightly) on the storytelling and characters within the play. Overall, the production benefitted from the moments of movement breaking up the stillness, and the introduction of rowdier, louder and more energetic characters.
In all, this was an engaging production exploring familial bonds, gender, and penguins. If you’re looking for a play with strong themes of identity and relationships, then Me, As a Penguin could well be the performance for you. It is heavy at times, and occasionally heavy-handed in its moral storytelling, but the cast crafted moments of pure joy and excitement that could help but elicit a smile. And if you’re hungry afterwards, you could always treat yourself to a slice of Battenburg.