Forget Jim Carrey. This charming production of ‘Mr Popper’s Penguins’ is based very much on the 1938 book, set in the spic and span, just-so, suburban idyll of Stillwater, full of proper chaps with proper moustaches, what-ho bonhomie and utilitarian beauty – all proper wooden stepladders and pristine linen.
No buying up bits of Central Park here, Mr Popper is a painter and decorator, seeing forests in his greens, and mountain tops in his greys, longing for the pristine white of the Polar ice in real life.
The music has touches of 1950s revue shows – think Tom Lehrer or Flanders and Swann – and the songs start early. Mr Popper’s opener has me breaking out in goosebumps as he sings of his love and longing for icy regions. You can see why. Mrs Popper is a tad frosty at home. Until a surprise package arrives one day from the South Pole which tips their world (and the goldfish bowl, and the laundry basket) very much upside down.
The execution is utterly enchanting. Lifesize puppet penguins are utterly believable and the cast of four flit between roles and regions beautifully. The songs contain plenty of nods and winks to grown ups, drawing funny and familiar parallels between raising penguins and raising tiny children – the list of table manners Captain Cook the penguin needs to adhere to while eating his fish can be reeled off by rote by any mother from the 1930s to the present day. There’s a nice nod to the ‘helpfulness’ of call centres too, as Mr Popper attempts to procure a licence for his bird. And another nod to ‘Grease’, with the chills not multiplying so much as the penguins, who are soon to number ten, which will lead to places Mr Popper has only dreamed about.
For a musical about the coldest parts of the planet and its inhabitants, this is a show of rare warmth, stand-out in its production values, pacing and the intelligence of its songs and script. So often, a show has similar elements – retro feelgood factors, singalongability and laugh-out-loud slapstick jokes, but it’s aimed primarily at children. This show hits home with audience members of all ages. It’s P-p-p-perfect.