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Me, As a Penguin/Spacewang (York)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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York Theatre Royal

Tom Wells has had considerable success on the back of his first play, Me, As a Penguin, which was staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2009. A tour followed, then associate playwright roles at the Bush and Hull Truck.

It's easy to see why. I can understand the comparisons to Alan Bennett in his easy mix of the mundane and the bizarre and his winning way with homely details such as product names.

However, after seeing Wells' impressive The Kitchen Sink at Hull last year, I must say that, in comparison, Me, As a Penguin seems like what it is, novice work. In Julian Ollive's competent production for York Theatre Royal's Young Actors Company, it produces plenty of smiles and mild puzzlement, but only really comes to life with the appearance of the offensive and self-centred penguin-keeper Dave.

Stitch, a young man with remarkable expertise in knitting, has left Withernsea in a desperate bid to come out on Hull's gay scene. Incidentally, Wells seems determined to put Withernsea on the map theatrically: it features in all three of his plays I have seen! Stitch is staying with his heavily pregnant sister and her husband (reportedly of uncertain temper, but actually fairly mild) and has returned from a trip to the zoo with a guilty secret.

Complications and deceptions follow before the play modulates nicely into a conventional, but quite moving, ending. Keri Bastiman, Nik Fenwick, Teej Jackson and Nathan Unthank inhabit their parts convincingly, but much of the play is rather even-paced and settee-bound.

I had thought it rather strange that the 30-minute monologue, Spacewang, should follow the interval rather than preceding the main play, but it proved a wise decision. Spacewang really shows Wells' development as a playwright over three years. In Oliver O'Shea's imaginative production, with Nicola Bradley lively and resourceful as Nora, it blends the absurdist comedy and serious insights into the inner life of young people much more successfully.

Bradley communicates splendidly with the audience in telling, and acting out, the story of the 14-year-old girl who plans for the arrival of aliens from space. Initially apparently about a teenager with an amusingly esoteric obsession, it gradually reveals the scale of her emotional trauma – and remains entertaining while doing so.

In four years Tom Wells has proved a productive and developing playwright as well as a talented one – and no doubt Withernsea has many more tales to tell!

- Ron Simpson