Huddle

Katy Costigan, Victoria Dyson and Sarah Shephard
Unicorn Theatre in association with Filskit Theatre
Unicorn Theatre (Clore Theatre)
to

Huddle is aimed at two- to five-year-olds but I loved it too. It’s a story that takes place in Antarctica, a snow-covered landscape of ice floes and distant peaks, that presents an Emperor Penguin father raising a chick on his own and being not quite sure how to do it. Without being excessively anthropomorphic, it isn’t just about birdlife. Baffled amazement, inexperience and affection aren’t species specific.

Designer Maxwell Nicholson-Lailey presents a projected snowscape that becomes peopled with penguins while in the foreground, between jagged ice structures (one of which incorporates a playground side), we meet Mr Penguin who, like some of his fellows behind him, has separated himself from the colony. He is cleverly costumed to suggest the species' black and white plumage with its flush of orangey yellow while the Chick, who will soon join him, has a look more like grey-brown feathers, though she sheds them later.

It isn’t surprising that Mr Penguin gets bemused for the play’s creators have borrowed from the human stork-bringing-babies myth. He (and the rest of the colony) receive their eggs parachuted down in an airlift of crates marked “Fragile Special Delivery.” He opens his with great excitement and investigates the egg’s possibilities rather irresponsibly.

There are other similar ingenious solutions, as in providing food for the Chick. In nature, the father can produce a special secretion and the mother regurgitates the results of a winter away hunting, having left immediately after laying. Here, Ioanna Varsou’s opening animation shows Mrs Penguin giving her partner a scarf when she went away and Mr Penguin has a string of caught fish that he hangs up like washing that we see swiftly swallowed.

Huddle is not ornithologically accurate. Indeed, as its title reminds us: for penguin dads don't incubate eggs solo but would huddle close with others to keep warm. The risk from predators and heat loss is too great to leave a chick and go hunting; they would have to waddle perhaps 18 kilometres to the sea and then swim to their fishing grounds. But letting Mr Penguin go off to find food is an opportunity for drama as Chick tries to hide from air attack by Giant Petrels.

The production’s partial anthropomorphism is carefully calculated for emotional effect to suit its target audience.

Huddle is a play without words but it doesn’t need them. Its conversations, with the audience or between penguins, are conducted in looks, gestures, calls and squawks. Performers Joseph Barney-Phillips and Victoria Dyson (who also co-directs with Sarah Shephard) do so brilliantly; there is never any doubt of their meaning.

There is a score and soundtrack by Owen Crouch that adds a lot to the atmosphere and the animations and live action are well integrated, a drawn blizzard accompanied by stage snowfall. The images may be simpler: chicks start with adult plumage and a sled gets lost on its way down to the ice field, but few would notice and they are drawn so delightfully.

From his first appearance, Barnes-Phillips’s eyes engage the audience and he and Dyson deliver performances of great warmth and humour; they provide nearly a whole hour of uninterrupted pleasure. What more can I say but repeat: it’s delightful!

Howard Loxton