The story behind the story – BRRR!

Posted on 21st April 2020
Writer and director of BRRR! our family show, now available to watch in full online, reveals the true inspiration for the production’s central character, ‘Steve’ the penguin…

Without that grumpy little penguin none of that would have happened

Way back in November 2013 Proteus had just moved into the Creation Space, and we wanted to create a Christmas show for very young children in our brand new home.
I had been on holiday to the Isle of Wight with my husband and daughters (then aged 7 and 10 years old) in the summer prior to this, and we had visited a wildlife park. They had penguins in a large enclosure with a pool, and this being a British summer, it was obviously freezing cold. Most of the penguins were, predictably, enjoying the low temperatures and diving in and out of the icy pool. But, tucked away to one side was a little penguin who seemed very unhappy with the situation. He was clearly fed up, wouldn’t take part in any swimming or diving, and quite frankly looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than there. We asked the keeper if he was okay, which apparently he was, but as he had been born and raised in British zoos and parks, he was as unimpressed as we were at the August temperatures.

When the others were trying to keep cool in the normal summer climes, the Keeper told us, this little one would be out sunbathing in the warmest spot he could find. My youngest daughter was quite taken with him – cue being forced to purchase a fluffy penguin in the gift shop to join the already heaving ranks of largely ignored soft toys back at home – and she recounted the story for weeks afterward to anyone who’d listen.

So, that Autumn, when trying to work out what this show for younger children would be, I remembered the little penguin and the story of ‘Brrr!’ was born. I roped in two fabulous performers to make it with me; Umar Butt an old friend and regular collaborator, and the simply fantastic Becky Barry, who is also an amazing Sign Language interpreter, regularly working with the RSC on their signed performances.

The three of us devised the original production which involved Rosie the Reindeer coming apart from Father Christmas’ sleigh and landing on Steve the Penguin’s half completed aeroplane. The central plot involved Steve’s desire to build an aeroplane out of the rubbish washed up on the arctic shores, so he could visit his cousins in sunny South Africa to escape the cold. Rosie, on the other hand, needed to get back to Father Christmas so she could finish helping him deliver presents. There were no words (apart form the character’s names) in this version, created for audiences under five, and the whole show was signed by Becky and Umar. My youngest daughter Sophia was roped in to provide narration, so parents and older children could follow a narrative, and the studio was converted into the Arctic, the show happening in the round with the audience on giant snow cushions.

Steve the Penguin’s little brother Stanley is, to this day, probably my favourite character of any we created in a kids show

It was incredibly well received and we wanted to take a slightly different version of the show on tour, which is the version we filmed at Jacksons Lane in London. This time the cast included the fabulous Dan Edge as a new character – Steve the Penguin’s little brother Stanley; he is, to this day, probably my favourite character of any we created in a kids show.

This version was filmed so that the people in venues who programme children’s work could see, enabling us to tour it nationally. It does have a lot more dialogue than the original, as we wanted to make sure older children could also enjoy it. The show was therefore not filmed to be streamed to audiences, but more as a record of the piece – that’s why the audience noise can be heard quite clearly. The show you will see was filmed in front of a packed audience, with a lot of children of all ages present. Alongside the show we created a storybook and audio storybook to go with it – you can also download these for free as a PDF and Mp3 track.
I have very fond memories of both versions of this show, my youngest daughter, the Narrator you hear on the soundtrack, is now a very grown up 13! This was also the start of our immersive Christmas shows for under-fives at Creation Space which resident artists Scratchbuilt now produce with us each year; seeing over a thousand delighted babies, toddlers, parents and Grandparents through our doors in December. Without that grumpy little penguin none of that would have happened!

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