Co-Creator/Performer: Hamzeh Al Hussien
Director: Amy Golding
Over a year on from their last production, Here, the Northeast’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary returns with another story of sanctuary-seeking even more personal than the last. Supported by D6: Culture in Transit, Curious Monkey’s Penguin is an often delightful, if at times sluggish, one-man show that brings us into the colourful world of Hamzeh, a disabled performer and Syrian refugee now living in Gateshead.
As the lights go down on Jida Akil’s sparse set — bare except for the border of white tent linen and an eclectic mix of jackets hung on rails — we are met with a voiceover explaining the show’s English and Arabic captioning, a handy element of accessibility for the everyone, since Hamzeh code switches between languages throughout. Once Al Hussien enters into his spotlight, his easy confidence and sincerity is enough to settle us into his story, using chalk to enliven the blank canvas of a stage and act as a visual aid for his stories, a clever technique that comes to feel somewhat repetitive by the end.
His likeability factor, however, doesn’t do enough to maintain the desired momentum of the show, which at times feels more like a series of disjointed anecdotes than a cohesive narrative, even despite the cross-continent journey underpinning it. Al Hussien shines more in the explicitly energetic moments, whether that’s dancing in a club on the quayside, running frantically around the house with a brush, or bringing audience members up onstage. These moments contrast awkwardly with more drawn-out sections of monologue and physical theatre, suggesting the 70-minute runtime could have been cut to provide for a punchier piece.
Though it often lacks the drama to fully enthral its audience, Penguin does have some standout quieter moments: Hamzeh’s wistful musings about home; his dreamy invocations of the sun and moon; or his first interaction with the Angel of the North. It feels right, too, that Hamzeh doesn’t mention his disability until about halfway through. Rather than feeling like the elephant in the room, it fades into the background as we get to know him, his personality and passions. When he finally discusses his struggle with otherness, his disability feels like one aspect of him rather than a defining feature.
For a play about a disabled asylum-seeker, Penguin is more personal than political, avoiding overt statements about current events in the refugee crisis in favour of a more down-to-earth, human story. In this, it perhaps holds more power in combating dehumanising narratives around refugees and stands as a worthy debut from a performer with undoubtedly more stories to tell.
Runs until 23 September 2023. Touring until 30 November 2023.