Thursday, 17 December 2015

Theatre review: The Lorax

The colourful worlds and wacky rhymes of Dr. Seuss would make him seem a natural fit for stage adaptation, but his books are so short that expanding his stories to make a full-length show can't be easy without losing a lot of their charm. David Greig, though, has succeeded in giving new life to one of the writer's most heartfelt stories, as he brings a musical version of The Lorax to the Old Vic. In this expanded version of the environmental fable, the Once-ler (Simon Paisley Day) is a dreamer who travels the world hoping and failing to invent something amazing, until he stumbles upon a forest of colourful Truffula trees, that produce an incredibly soft and fluffy wool. Knitting it into a shapeless thing he calls a thneed, it becomes a must-have accessory despite nobody being quite sure what it is. He builds a thneed factory and a town supported by its economy, ignoring the warnings of the Lorax (voiced by Simon Lipkin,) a woodland creature responsible for the trees and worried about what'll happen when the Once-ler starts chopping them down.

Rob Howell's designs capture both the bright surreal energy of Seuss' colourful natural world, and the sinister darkness of its industrial decay, in Max Webster's enthusiastic production.

Greig's script is completely made up of rhyming couplets with an authentic-feeling sense of Seuss' made-up words, and the expanded story does more than just fill the time in a satisfactory way: In the book the Once-ler is unseen but here he's not only visible, we see him with the ambitious parents (Richard Katz and Penny Layden) who egg him on to expand his business empire and keep them in nice things. It would be an exaggeration to say Paisley Day's Once-ler is a sympathetic version of the character, but we get to see how small ambitions get out of hand until he's the problem, and by the end he still thinks of the Lorax as his friend, and is hurt to find out that's not the case.

The Lorax himself - who's actually used pretty sparingly - is a scene-stealing puppet, often described as beaver-like but looking more like a cross between a walrus and a koala. Lipkin and Ben Thompson are two actors you'll rarely see without a puppet so it was probably inevitable they'd end up working together sooner or later; along with Laura Cubitt they work the Lorax with a huge amount of expressiveness, both in his face and the way his body moves, often cutely clambering up props or people.

Charlie Fink's songs provide a few big show-stopping moments, including Melanie La Barrie's comic vocal gymnastics as the leader of a law firm styled more like Destiny's Child, and a simultaneously exciting and heartbreaking rock number as the Once-ler builds a tree-chopping machine. With In The Heights' Drew McOnie on choreography duty there's plenty of backflips and spectacle to keep the energy levels up, but it never detracts from the story's heart - both Vanessa and I felt teary at times, partly in my case because The Lorax was a big part of my childhood. I don't know how many of the children in tonight's audience were familiar with the book going in but all seemed to be completely drawn into its story on stage. A tragedy with a moral about the environment doesn't seem obvious family Christmas fare, but just as Seuss' book presents a heavy-handed - but horribly accurate - message with an unlikely light touch, so Greig, Fink and Webster have replicated the feat for the stage, with a charming show it'd be a shame to miss.

The Lorax by David Greig and Charlie Fink, based on the book by Dr. Seuss, is booking until the 16th of January at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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