The delightful children’s novel by Richard and Florence Atwater (made into a 2011 film starring Jim Carrey) is now a theatre show – and it’s also a delight, if an abbreviated one.
Mr Popper (Russell Morton) is now British, childless and still with his wife (Carrey’s Popper was a divorcee with children). But there are penguins, or rather one penguin at first: when the polar-obsessed painter and decorator Mr Popper is sent one as a gift by an Arctic explorer he has been writing to.
The bird, Captain Cook, gets lonely and a female friend is then sent over, leading to the arrival of lots of mini penguins. The childless couple take them in and even those with icy hearts will struggle to be moved by the resolution when the Poppers turn them into a spectacular theatre troupe.
As well as the plot differences from the film, this Pins and Needles Productions show is considerably shorter at one hour. But it’s full of excellent tunes by Luke Bateman (with lyrics by Richy Hughes). In fact, it’s mostly music and song numbers from the couple as they embrace Mr Popper’s eccentricity and life with their waddling friends.
Morton’s Popper and Roxanne Palmer as his long-suffering wife give a lively and joyful performance, and the puppet work is top-notch.The penguins are well-realised and move with charm and a genuine animal vigour. It would be hard to make penguins un-cute but puppet designer Nick Barnes manages to imbue them with sweetness without overdoing it.
I also liked the other animals who popped up – especially the dogs on wheels owned by Popper’s puzzled neighbours – and there’s also a magical snowstorm at the close of the show.
The play’s shortness means that the emotional journey is condensed, but that’s no bad thing if you have fidgety kids. This is a theatre experience that will appeal to a range of ages. My five and eight-year-old certainly found these penguins the p-p-p-perfect pick-me-up.
Mr Popper’s Penguins is at the Criterion Theatre until December 31