Interview – Roxanne Palmer shares the magic of Mr Popper’s Penguins


Actress Roxanne Palmer is currently appearing as Mrs Popper in the touring production of Mr Popper’s Penguins

Having just enjoyed a Christmas season at the Lowry Salford, the world premiere of brand new family musical Mr Popper’s Penguins, directed by Emma Earle, completes its tour of the country with a run at Rose Theatre Kingston from Thursday 14 January to Sunday 17 January.

Painter and decorator by day, Mr Popper dreams of Antarctic adventures. He is astounded when one day a packing crate arrives on his doorstep, out of which waddles a penguin! Original songs (composer Luke Bateman, lyricist Richy Hughes) and puppetry (designer Nick Barnes) bring life to this musical adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater’s popular book, also made into a Hollywood film starring Jim Carrey.

ROXANNE PALMER plays Mrs Popper. Her West End theatre credits include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeLegally Blonde the Musical and Viva Forever. Roxanne has also worked extensively for mask theatre company Strangeface. Credits with Strangeface include The Last ResortA Christmas Carol and Pinocchio. She also writes and performs her own sketches on her YouTube channel MissBizUK. 

Molly Kerrigan asks the questions:

How is the show going? 

It’s been really busy actually at The Lowry, where we have being doing our Christmas season, with lots of cute kids watching! It’s been very well received, the audience seems to really like it and all the kids are into it. It’s been nice and close at The Lowry so you can see their faces a lot.

How did you get involved in the show?

I had just finished a show in town that I’d been doing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for a year. I just came out and auditioned and I really liked the director, Emma [Earle]. She has a really cool way of working. We improvised a lot and devised a lot of the show ourselves.

Russell Morton (Mr Popper), Toby Manley (Male Puppeteer), Lucy Grattan (Female Puppeteer) & Roxanne Palmer (Mrs Popper) Credit Helen Murray

Russell Morton, Toby Manley, Lucy Grattan and Roxanne Palmer in Mr Popper’s Penguins. Picture: Helen Murray

Talking about the puppets… How do you incorporate the penguins into the performance?

We’ve got loads of penguins and people are always surprised that there’s only four of us in the show because there’s so many of them. Basically there’s two main puppeteers, Toby [Manley] and Lucy [Grattan] who mainly do the puppetry and they’re amazing at it. Then myself, Mrs Popper, and Mr Popper [Russell Morton] are doing most of the dialogue, but the other two do the odd character. It all fees very natural and the audience buys into the format straight away.

Is there anything else challenging in the show? 

Well… the early mornings! We do a lot of shows for younger children which often start around 10am. Mr Popper and I do a lot of the singing so that can be a little bit trickier in the mornings, but it always turns out alright – I think!

You say the show is focused around children but does the show appeal to adults as well? 

Do you know what, the adults seem to really like it as well. We’ve had really good feedback from the parents and I know they really enjoy watching their kids’ reactions to the puppets and stuff. There’s some humour in it as well for the adults. There’s a scene for example in a call centre which adults seem to find really funny.

Were you a fan of the film or the book itself?

I had seen the film a few years before with my nephew and it’s great! But it’s really different from the film because they updated the story in the movie; our piece is based in the 1950s and set in a fictional England town, so we are all British. So it’s got a different vibe and the music has that sweet, traditional sort of style to it. I get to have a 1950s roll in my hair and I love that!

Do you enjoy playing Mrs Popper? 

Yeah I do, she’s quite feisty. Well… I’ve made her quite feisty. At first she’s not sure about the penguins because she likes her house, nice and clean. She likes her order and then this penguin comes in! As you can imagine, it kicks off and everything goes crazy. At first she’s trying to stop the penguin and can’t handle it and then she falls for them. That’s what I think happens with the audience too as they’re so cute! It’s good for her and then it changes her, it’s like when kids come along; it’s that loveable chaos you wouldn’t change for a million years. She’s a likeable character because at first she doesn’t get it but then she totally goes on this journey with her husband. She’s won over by these amazing penguins.

Toby Manley (Male Puppeteer), Lucy Grattan (Female Puppeteer), Russell Morton (Mr Popper) & Roxanne Palmer (Mrs Popper) Credit Helen Murray

Toby Manley, Lucy Grattan, Russell Morton and Roxanne Palmer. Picture: Helen Murray

You were in Legally Blonde and Viva Forever!, how does this differ? 

In its scale. With those shows you have so many people working there, they’re getting the scenes ready and stuff, but in our show there’s just four of us, so we are doing all of the scene changes and we are incorporating them into the show. There’s a scene where the penguins are messing it all up but actually we are doing a scene change. We have a lot more responsibility, because there are fewer of us, we are very much part of how the show moves forward, in contrast to being in a bigger cast.

Which do you prefer? 

There are pros and cons, probably in all I enjoy being involved more. In Mr Popper’s Penguins, once you start the show it just happens, it’s so busy and it’s so fun much as it starts rolling. This show is a lot shorter than your typical two to three hour musical. It’s sweet as well, because this show is for little kids, we can see them and hear the their reactions.

In a large-scale musical with big lights you can’t see the faces of the audience. Obviously because they’re kids, they shout out things, really funny things. One kid shouted out my line the other day, just before I said it! It was really weird… My line was meant to be ‘Oh, I think they like each other!’ when the penguins meet, and just before I said it, a kid shouted the same words. I think the audience thought I had improvised it. We have more of a connection with the audience and we do a little bit of audience participation which is actually sweet as we can see the journey the audience has been on. There is a bit more of a distance, both physically and theatrically, in a big show at a big theatre.

So the audience are quite involved in the show?

Yeah, because kids don’t really know theatre etiquette, which is kind of wonderful in a way because you can almost hear what they are thinking. It’s sweet because a child lives in a land of make believe so he or she can buy into it with all their heart so quickly. You can see their shocked faces and then their laughter straight away. Because the show is set in another era, it’s got that magical ‘another world’ feel.

Have you always been in the theatre industry? 

Well I went to The BRIT School when I was 14, so since then that’s always been my goal. Then I went to the Guildford School of Acting and got the bug for it. I studied musical theatre there; it’s a great place for musical theatre.

What has been your favourite show you have been in so far? 

I was in this show at the Young Vic called The Realness. It was a really unique project as half of the cast were ex-prisoners and it was in association with a charity called Only Connect who works with ex-offenders to rehabilitate them into society. The play showed what it’s like for someone and how easy it is to reoffend. It was such a brilliant project and I learnt so much from it. That’s always been my favourite as the show was so amazing itself as well.

Are you still working on your YouTube channel? 

I’m writing a few sketches at the moment. I’ve got like a character called Miss Biz who’s a musical theatre wannabe. They’re all based on me really. It’s such a weird business, embarrassing things happen to me all the time! I’ve got loads of sketches I need to write. There’s lots of funny stuff in the pipeline.

What are your plans for the future?

As an actor, you just have to see what comes! I’ll be auditioning and I might go travelling again, after Curious Incident I went to India. I like to break up my acting jobs with a bit of travelling. I’m going to work with Orangutans and live with them. I’ve been on the waiting list for ages, I can’t wait!

* Mr Popper’s Penguins is adapted for the stage by Pins and Needles Productions. The production is presented by Kenny Wax Family Entertainment Ltd and Teresa and Craig Beech.

Readers may also be interested in:

Mr Popper’s Penguins – The Lowry, Salford – Review


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