Penguins are strangely compelling creatures: they’ve captured the imagination of countless children on television in BBC’s cartoon Pingu, then probably the same kids as adults in the French documentary March of the Penguins, and on card in Edward Monkton’s illustrated Penguin of Death. But how to bring a penguin to the stage? That’s one question that’s been answered by Tom Wells, hot young playwright from Hull whose latest play Me As A Penguin is finishing its national tour at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this weekend. The answer, obviously, is with the help of a giant penguin costume, and a Transformers lunchbox.
Such a mixture of the expected and the unexpected is emblematic of the simple contrasts Wells often uses to convey his ideas, with familiar images given new resonance: I’ll never look at another kid’s lunchbox without remembering the small penguin that central character Stitch secreted inside it, the ultimate aquatic bird-smuggling aid.
This theft acts as the first catalyst of the short play, with young, confused, gay knitting enthusiast Stitch impulsively stealing a penguin from an aquarium in Hull, and hiding it in his sister Liz’s bathroom. Liz is heavily pregnant, with an unquenchable craving for Battenburg cake, and the sight of her biting a huge chunk from the marzipan-iced cube is one that will have me chuckling for days. Played by Samantha Power with warmth and vitality, her deadpan comic timing is never off the mark. John Catterall plays her beleaguered young husband Mark, a decent everyman and father-to-be who means well (even if he can’t quite let go of his beloved sofa).
Their house guest Stitch is often a bone of contention between the pair. Ian Bonar’s portrayal of a torn, inexperienced young gay man is nuanced and well-observed, conveying Stitch’s vulnerability with a worried frown, and nervous rubbing of the knees, clutching knitting needles for reassurance. He’s clad in a ‘original’ wool cardigan, of course.
When Liz’s husband Mark discovers the stowaway in the bath tub, Stitch is faced with confronting Mark’s friend Dave, the aquarium worker who he’d recently hooked up with, and subsequently developed a crush for. Dave is unimpressed with the whole scenario, played with laid-back, gruff attitude by Daniel Abelson. Though a friend of Mark’s, he leaves a nasty taste in the mouth with his blunt crushing of Stitch’s impressionable hopes of a relationship when they are left alone together.
Barney George’s set is neat as a button, at its centrepiece the natty blue sofa that is often the subject of the married couple’s dispute. Plywood boards for the backdrop and walls are a nice emphasis on the makeshift state of all the characters lives at the beginning of the play, as well as referencing Ikea, so mercilessly ridiculed to great effect by all onstage, a philosophical highlight coming from Mark: “If there’s one thing I learned when I was working at Ikea: things fall apart.”
If that’s the case, in Me As A Penguin, with a script jam-packed with insight, honesty and a rich northern humour permeating every line, things can certainly be put back together again.