Walking into the Propeller Stage, we are greeted by jaunty doo-wop music and four eccentrically dressed puppets sitting in brightly coloured chairs, facing away from us. It piques both my curiosity and that of several kids in attendance; a few of them even pop up to try and grab a better look at the puppets. The show captivates its audience before it even begins.
When Peter Wilson bursts into the space, he is an immediate wellspring of energy – there’s no chance of the audience’s minds wandering any time soon. Both his strong physicality and soothing voice serve to ensnare the audience. We soon find out he’s the titular Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge himself, reflecting back on his youth when he lived next door to a retirement village. He switches between his older self and youthful innocence (young Wilfrid is himself a puppet) with flair and I’m amazed at how fluidly he shifts between the two characters. Performer Kenny King exhibits similar character skills, voicing two characters at once. It's a marvel to see both actors switch swiftly between their multiple parts and maintain each character’s individual quirks.
Eventually, we learn more about the four mystery puppets. There’s Mrs Jordan, who played all sorts of instruments – from piano to electric guitar; Mr Hosking, who liked books and told scary stories; Miss Mitchell, who walks with a stick and was once a famous ballet dancer; and Mr Drysdale, a former sheep farmer with a voice like a giant. Performers Wilson and Kenny King alternate between characters, infecting each with a unique personality and voice – even their puppetry changes subtly depending on the character. Their performance is spellbinding, and despite the relatively quiet audience tonight, the energy of Wilson and King never falters, creating a truly magnificent spectacle.
Each character’s story is a perfect cocktail of nostalgia (often bittersweet) and humour, each punctuated with expert moments of audience interaction; learning about these characters is one of the show’s highlights. Entrancing shadow play and musical accompaniment (some fine work by Stephen Gallagher here) intertwine well to accentuate the individual residents’ tales – such as by showing us the plethora of instruments and musical notes Mrs Jordan learned and the adventures Mr Hosking’s imagination took him on.
This show is both uproariously funny and definitely heart-warming (I may have shed the odd tear) – a testament to both the original story by Mem Fox and the work of Little Dog Barking in their adaptation. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a simple and straightforward story, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining or emotionally resonant. There’s something in here for all ages, and I wouldn’t let its marketing to 3-10 year olds deter anyone from going to see it. Regardless of age, if you’re looking for a cure for a case of the winter ills, I can think of no better one than Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.