In recent years Sale Waterside has built a mighty reputation for its family-friendly Christmas shows, often in association with Pins & Needles Productions, punching well above their weight with the likes of The Bear and Father Christmas.
They’ve raised the bar pretty high and this year they’re tackling Mr Popper’s Penguins, which, though not obviously festive (except, y’know, snow) has plenty of history. Originally a 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, in 2011 it became a hit movie starring Jim Carrey. This stage production, directed by Emma Earle, goes right back to the 30s setting of the book, as well as its air of naïve simplicity.
As ever, half the fun is in seeing exactly how a small cast, this time just four, can pull off the telling of an ambitious story, taking in elements including a small town, an ocean liner, a Broadway show and, obviously, penguins. Loads of penguins. As with previous Pins & Needles shows, the key factor here is puppetry. Each cast member doubles as an actor and a puppeteer, plus a penguin impersonator. And to their enormous credit, they’ve pulled it off (again).
With an oblique setting somewhere that’s five parts UK to one-part US, it’s the tale of humble dreamer Mr Popper (Will Kelly) and his then-fashionable obsession with explorers and the South Pole. When a little part of the Antarctic fetches up on their doorstep, he and his wife (Monica Nash) endeavour to cope, but when their mission hits choppy waters the only answer is to double down. In other words, they end up playing host to a whole waddle of squawking flightless birds. What’s more, the Poppers set about training them to become a performing troupe.
Is it fun? Oh, you bet. There are (very decent) songs and set-pieces, even before the penguins show up in force. Once they do, their hi-jinks are laugh-out-loud endearing, enough to please all ages. Northern Soul took along a pair of sleep-deprived, slightly sceptical 10-year-olds to really test this thing out, but in the event, both were enraptured, declaring the show to be brilliant, hilarious and – yes – better than the film. Take that, Carrey.
It’s sweet and gentle stuff, told with plenty of wit and style as well as a whip-crack sense of pace. At an hour long with no interval, it’s sure to hold the attention of even the youngest theatregoers, which is no mean feat. A little unexpectedly, then, Mr Popper’s Penguins turns out to be the perfect jolly blast for the season. Marvel at the sheer resourceful ingenuity of it all or lose yourself in the warm, daft, fuzzy story, it’s up to you, but either way this is well worth taking the nippers to.
Main image © Jason Lock Photography
Mr Popper’s Penguins, Sale Waterside, until December 31.