New Wolsey Studio Puppet show is literally out of this world

More than 30,000 people see the New Wolsey’s rock ‘n’ roll panto every year; but did you know the theatre also has a Christmas show which plays to 8,000 youngsters? Entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE p-p-p-picked up some info about latest offering Penguin.

Penguins in space, an anarchic spoon-wielding doctor, a boy-eating blue lion; never mind children, I fancy seeing this myself.

Staged by Brighton-set company Long Nosed Puppets, it’s based on the award-winning book by Polly Dunbar and features songs by Tom Gray of indie band Gomez.

Ben gets a parcel which turns out to be an penguin which won’t move or even speak; as frustration sets in the little boy takes increasingly extreme measures to get a response - including firing him into orbit.

“The story is about friendship and how you don’t have to make big actions, it’s the small things that count,” says Katherine Morton, who shares creative director duties with Ant Morton.

“We’ve introduced some other characters, in the show Ben takes the penguin to see Dr Noise who’s quite an alternative doctor,” she laughs.

“He hits the penguin on the head with a spoon and does things like that. Then there’s a big blue lion [who eats Ben because he’s too noisy, prompting the penguin to save the day] which makes for a good costume puppet who comes out into the audience and sings a song.”

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Bringing these characters to life are talented puppeteers George Williams, Jessie Martelhof-Johnson and Kirsty Rowland.

Aimed at two to seven-year-olds, the four and five star rated show went down a storm with even younger audiences in Edinburgh recently after being wrongly advertised as suitable for zero to one-year-olds.

“Every performance we had this row of babies in the front who all loved it as well because it’s very visual. This time, instead of having scenery and a traditional booth style with curtains we’ve used an overhead projector.

“It features words for the audience to join in and it’s great because parents sing along or say a word like ‘say aah’ for the doctor too. This is our third show and we’ve put in more audience participation because we realised the kids just love that; it really engages them and keeps them involved.”

This, together with having just five main characters, a few props and minimalistic staging helps the performers tell the story in a simple and engaging way while all the time building the atmosphere and tension before bursting into song.

“There are songs throughout which are all written by Tom and there’s a real variety. There’s one that’s got a country-esque feel, there’s a kind of ballad at the end. They’re not children’s songs which can be a bit grating,” she laughs.

“They’re very, very cool. People e-mail us all the time, especially dads and say how much they love the music.”

Long Nose - who specialise in creating inspiring, inventive and colourful puppet shows for the very young - are no stranger to Ipswich. They’ve staged two previous Christmas shows with the Wolsey.

The company, set up by Katherine and Polly Dunbar who studied illustration at Brighton University where they often worked together creating characters and stories, had sell-out performences here with two previous shows.

First was Shoe Baby, adapted from the book illustrated by Polly and written by her mum, the well known author Joyce Dunbar.

It sold-out up and down the country and at the Edinburgh Festival. It won the award for the best children’s show at Brighton Festival 2006 and was the main children’s Christmas show at the Komedia there the same year. The second equally successful show was Flyaway Katie.

Exciting, surreal, full of surprises and with plenty of audience participation, what sets Penguin apart from other seasonal shows out there though?

“It’s a show which everyone seems to love. It’s got sort of magic and sparkle about it and it doesn’t necessarily feel especially Christmassy,” says Katherine.

“It really does appeal to all ages and we also get people e-mailing saying ‘I didn’t expect a 24-month-old toddler to be engaged but they were transfixed through the whole show’.”

Something I’m sure parents will be glad of.

Penguin runs at the New Wolsey Studio, St George’s Street, Ipswich, to December 31 with shows at 11am, 2pm and, on some dates, 3.30pm. There’s even the chance to play with the puppets - I’m booking my ticket now.