Thursday, 17 December 2015

Theatre Review: The Lorax

When I was seven, my parents took me to see my first ever professional theatre production.

It was a touring production of Joseph, with Darren Day (remember him?) in the lead role, in Manchester and as far as I was concerned it was fucking magical (though I like to think I wouldn't have phrased it that way back then). It was a treat because I’d broken one of my arms over the summer holiday and was feeling pretty glum about it, booked as a day out package out of the back of the local newspaper. We sat in the cheap seats (I was obsessed with the red plastic opera glasses you could hire) and I was completely captivated from start to finish. I even ended up being a member of the Darren Day fanclub for a number of years as a result. Yes, such a thing really did exist.

Twenty odd years, hundreds of theatre hours and an amount of money I don’t care to think about later and I still think theatre is magical and captivating, even if my opinions on Darren Day and red plastic opera glasses have moved on.

I mention this not, shockingly, to show off my early love of Darren Day but because I was reminded of it whilst watching the Old Vic’s Christmas family production of the Dr Seuss classic The Lorax. And whilst my seven year old self wouldn't use the phrase ‘fucking magical’ my twenty-nine year old self definitely will: this show is fucking magical.

Image source.

For those who don’t know (idiots), The Lorax is an environmental fable which tells the story of a small beavery creature who looks after his local trees and animals. When ambitious inventor the Once-ler moves in he cuts down the trees to make pointless stuff to sell on for a profit, building a city to support his growing business. Cultures clash, the Lorax turns eco warrior but ultimately there is a happy ending where everyone learns that it’s our job to look after the environment and not get caught up in the relentless quest for pointless stuff.

Technically there is so much to love about this show, not least the fantastic, whimsical design which stays true to Dr Seuss’ trademark visual style to a degree that’s as impressive as it is adorable. Every set, prop and costume is colourful and larger than life but still hangs together perfectly and nothing seems to be fighting with anything else. The truffula trees were a personal favourite - they look exactly like they do in the book and, as a versatile prop, are used incredibly well.

Visually, though, the most impressive aspect of this production are the amazingly lifelike puppets - particularly the Lorax himself who I desperately want to rehome once the show is over. 50% adorable moustachioed ginger beaver, 50% eco-terrorist, the Lorax is operated in the Japanese tradition by three puppeteers including Simon Lipkin who also provides his voice (and who I last saw as the beyond creepy clown proprietor of the disused fair where the Menier's Assassins was set - the contrast is stark to say the least). It’s a fantastic collective performance that makes an adorable puppet into a real, living, breathing character. When the Lorax is sad and broken, after all the trees have been cut down, I was genuinely heartbroken for him. I only remembered some time later that he was essentially a teddy bear and so didn't actually have feelings (despite what the Toy Story films would have us believe). Lipkin provides a great, authentic voice too, including some beautiful singing during the Lorax’ eleven o'clock number.

Speaking of singing, the music for this show, written by Charlie Fink, the former lead singer of Noah and the Whale (remember them?), is memorable and fun, and includes one of the best, most accessible protest songs I've heard in a long time. Combined with energetic, silly dance routines - that the cast throw themselves into with 110% (sorry) enthusiasm, as they do everything else - and you've got, if not quite a great musical, then certainly a great play with songs.

The writing too is fantastic, with playwright David Greig having done an amazing job on beefing up Dr Seuss’ short book into a full play without losing that distinctive, joyous language and voice. The contemporary references he slips in (selfies, Twitter, a not very veiled spoof of Apple) feel natural and the blend between dialogue and songs is as good as you’d find in any musical. It’s apparent that Greig loves Dr Seuss’ world and the cast do too, Lipkin is a highlight as is Simon Paisley Day’s Once-ler (even if he did look unnervingly like a green haired Benedict Cumberbatch).

All of this is completely unimportant though and I'm not really sure why I've wasted my time writing it. Because the best thing about The Lorax is the glorious, uncynical optimism which oozes from every pore of this production. Its positivity is infectious and if you can see this show and fail to walk away thinking you can absolutely change the world then there’s something wrong with you. And even for hardcore anti-children people like me, it’s genuinely heartwarming to see little kids so into a piece of theatre as the ones sitting near me were with this - I can’t imagine a better introduction to how magical theatre can be than this show.

In short then, whatever your age you should go and see this show immediately. Because, remember, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

The Lorax is on at the Old Vic until January 16th. Get your skates on.  

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