WHO: Ryan- Massive David Attenborough fan / Jamal- MC extraordinaire / Danny- the new boy. WHERE: a teenage mental health ward. WHEN: Now. Urgent and witty, this exciting new drama explores everything, from belly buttons and diabetic penguins to missing your Gran. Just don’t say the ‘n’ word (… normal).
Considering the potentially loaded subject matter, Diabetic Penguins is a very pleasant and engaging watch. It is just a simple story with some engaging and well-thought out characters – and this is what makes it such a delight. At its heart, it is just a discussion on the nature of life between three teenagers who just happen to be mentally ill.
The play raises issues of ‘normality’ in a sensitive way – the three young men featured here are not stereotypically ‘mental’, in fact, they are outwardly as normal as you or me. We never even really find out what is ‘wrong’ with them as such. Writer Jess Lee has been sensitive in showing a different kind of normal, one that does not alienate but instead informs you of the problems facing teenagers.
Importantly, the three men support each other, even though they come from wildly different and contrasting backgrounds. You have the geeky Danny, stuttering and nervous about his time in the ward, the outwardly self-assured Ryan of whom the cracks start to show part way through and the streetwise Jamal, who provides many of the laughs.
There are some strong themes evident in Diabetic Penguins. Physical contact is rare, one such moment awkwardly played out with the kind of feeling that makes you wonder whether a lack of contact somehow further alienates these youngsters. Similarly, Danny’s freaking out at the lack of privacy also resonates. Family life on the outside is often touched upon with varying circumstances that will make adjusting back to normality difficult.
Lee’s script is witty, packed with smart one-liners and touching moments. The three leads work well together and it is testament to the writing and the chemistry of the actors that they are such a joy to watch. The play has also been directed by the company, with delicate pacing and a well-judged minimal feel that allows you to focus on the characters.
John Bulwich’s Ryan exudes a self-assured air that grounds proceedings despite his obvious deep trauma. Ed Jaundrell’s Danny is a endearingly nervy character who easily gets the audience on side with him whilst Jarreau Benjamin cannot help but dominate the stage with his cheeky demeanour. Behind the scenes, Peter M. George demonstrates his technical skills turning the neutral lights of the ward to a sickly hue when events get too much for Ryan.
Sometimes, the simplest stories make for the most affecting and Diabetic Penguins is no exception. Jess Lee has managed to craft a heartwarming story that speaks confidently and charmingly about the issues surrounding mental health. A promising, enjoyable and heartwarming debut, this hopefully won’t be the last we see of her.
The Fiction Stroker gives Diabetic Penguins three strokes out of five:
Diabetic Penguins runs at the Lass O’Gowrie until 7 July. It transfers to the Buxton Fringe on the 8th, 16-17th and 19th July at Underground Venues. You can read The Fiction Stroker’s interview with writer Jess Lee over on the Greater Manchester Fringe blog. The production is supporting YASP (Young Adults Services and Projects) and CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) with each performance.