Muddy review: Mr Popper’s Penguins, Assembly Hall Theatre, T.Wells

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My mini muddies tend to ask me the most tricky of questions on a Monday morning before I’m mainlined to a caffeine source. Last week is was ‘What’s past the planets?’ (er, no idea) and ‘Where are my red school sports socks?’ (er, definitely no idea). But this week was different. ‘What’s your favourite bird?’ Easy! A penguin. No contest. There’s something about this intelligent, flightless, waddling bird, survivor of the harshest of winters that simply warms the heart. Which is why even the old cynic in me knew I was probably going to enjoy Mr Popper’s Penguins at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, almost as much as the small fry that the play is aimed at.

So, I hot footed it along to this morning’s opening performance in order to give you the low-down while the show is still on it’s four day run in Kent. The first thing to tell you is that the story is rather different to the film adaptation and closer to the original book. Mr Popper is a painter and decorator by day who dreams of breaking out of his safe life in Stillwater and going on Antarctic adventures. Then a package arrives in the post that melts even the more prissy Mrs Popper. Think simple, catchy songs, lots of well-timed, physical comedy and a storyline to warm the cockles.

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The second thing to tell you is that most of the performances take place during the school day – so this play is perfect for school trips or pre-school children. There were a lot of very well-behaved tiny ones watching, babbling away to the tunes. But if you have a toddler that can’t be tied down, it might be more tricky. My friend Bex joined me with her 2 year-old and he was a bit wriggly. I’d say deal age would be 3 – 6 years old. For an outside of school hours performance you’ve got Friday, 4.30pm or two Saturday shows.

So would your minis like it? Well the school children watching seemed to be having lots of fun, particularly when the penguins were on stage and particularly when there were jokes about them biting bottoms. The production itself harks back to the spirit of the golden era of musical theatre – there’s no whizz-bang special effects. Better than that, it relies on perfectly performed puppeteering and slick stage direction – and the superb cast of four do this with real skill. The penguins – who steal the show from the actors controlling them – are brought to life so realistically right down to their flapping arms, squeaks and squawks. The play is all about the triumph of imagination and says a big *Pah!* to expensive sets and explosions.

With its younger audience in mind, the show runs in one 55 minute stretch without an interval. And just towards the end in the later stages, when everyone started to fidget, the best bit comes. All ten penguins performing their big circus act routine. It’s a brilliant moment, a real highlight of a show that felt like it could have played in theatres fifty years ago and I mean that in the best way possible.

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I’m a real fan of taking children to the theatre. There’s nothing that quite lingers in their memory like a live performance – and far from being a luxury it’s not an expensive treat when you consider what we’re prepared to spend on everyday disposable tat. There’s been quite a few studies showing the benefits it brings – it develops communication skills and comprehension, as you might expect, but also significantly raises tolerance and empathy levels in our little anklebiters. So if you’re thinking of taking your little one for their first theatre trip this mini musical might be just the ticket.

Performances: Wed 28 Sep – Sat 1 Oct, Wed at 10.30am, Thurs at 10.30am & 1.30pm, Fri at 10.30am & 4.30pm, Sat at 10.30am & 1.30pm, Tickets: £12.50, Schools £9.50. Assembly Hall Theatre, Crescent Rd, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LU, Tel: assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk

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