With only a piece of chalk, a basket of lemons and some marbles Hamzeh Al Hussein manages to transport audiences across continents and through rivers of time.
Penguin tells Hamzeh’s story. A disabled man who loves to dance, he sees the world in a unique way.
The Disabled Man who Loves to Dance
Displaced by the war in Syria, Hamzeh, and his family spend six years in a Za’atari Refugee Camp alongside thousands of people.
They aren’t allowed to plant anything for fear of wasting the limited water. Red dust coats everything and makes it hard to breathe.
And yet, somehow, Hamzeh manages to find the beautiful moments: the sound of music blaring through speakers, how good your favourite shawarma tastes when it’s free and how moonlight looks when it’s reflected through tears.
From Syria to Newcastle
Eventually, Hamzeh and his big brother Waseem are relocated to Gateshead, Newcastle, while their family remains behind.
They grapple with the perils of cooking chicken in the oven, understanding the Geordie accent and trying to drive sensibly when presented with a mobility scooter.
Penguin is a beautiful story that still feels intimate while spanning an incredible emotional – and physical- distance.
Hazmeh Al Hussein’s Wonderful Performance
As the sole performer, a lot rests on Hazmeh Al Hussein.
He is brilliant. Commanding the stage from the moment he enters and keeping the audience’s attention for the duration.
He shifts between the tender and comedic moments of the story with ease. His performance is so warm and welcoming that the audience immediately feels relaxed in his presence.
The Power of Dance
One of the most memorable things about Penguin is how it utilises dance to underscore an emotional moment within the story.
With movement direction from Nadia Iftkhar, points of Penguin are made all the more poignant by the inclusion of dance or movement.
Although it’s told in a linear way, Penguin weaves a deceptively intricate web, memories and stories interlace together so gently that you don’t realise that you’ve come full circle until Hamzeh is taking his final bow
. The show never drags or stalls, with every scene feeling necessary.
Many different elements come together beautifully to help make Penguin great.
Excellent Costume Design
For example, although the costumes (designed by Jida Akil and supervised by Lou Duffy) are fairly commonplace and the changes are casual, they still add an element to the story that makes the scene that much richer and believable.
Similarly, the props used throughout are significant though simple. They help Penguin feel lived in and tangible to the audience.
Despite being uncomplicated, the set and sound design work almost in tandem to create the rich world being described (designed by Jida Akil and Hamza Aranout respectively) The effect is remarkably transformative, from a bus in Daraa to dancing in the kitchen while cooking, nowhere is out of bounds.
The lighting and AV design (Simon Cole) is subtle while still being incredibly effective.
It adds a weight and depth that makes the story that much more memorable.
Reflective of Hamzeh’s wide grasp of languages, Penguin is subtitled in both English and Arabic.
Above all, Penguin is a love letter to the people and places that have shaped Hamzeh into the person he is today.
It is truly charming and an extremely wonderful reflection of a life touched and changed but not entirely uprooted by war.
Penguin is at HOME Manchester until Friday 13th October 2023.
Tickets can be purchased here