Thank goodness for Simon Lipkin, Laura Cubitt and Ben Thompson. But especially Lipkin. Because these three gifted actors/puppeteers give life (and in Lipkin’s case, voice) to the titular character in David Grieg’s adaptation of Dr Seuss’ much loved conservation fairy tale, The Lorax, now in previews, in a production directed by Max Webster, at the Old Vic. And it is that wily, orange-skinned, grandpa-hippie über-creature, wise, frisky and ignored, who brings heart and empathy to the proceedings.
It is remarkable that three fully sized humans can make themselves effectively invisible on stage so that an ingeniously devised puppet can be brought to life, but that is precisely what happens here. The actors simply melt into the background – even when you are staring at them, all you are seeing is the animated Lorax, with Lipkin’s mellifluous tones providing the wrinkly, twinkly methuselah-of-the-forest vocals. This smoke-and-mirror magic lies at the core of the success here.
The Lorax seems utterly real, completely sensible, and unfeasibly forgiving. The great achievement in Webster’s production is that an ingenious way has been made to make the Lorax live. And fly – his ascension is a moment to treasure.
But in other ways the production falls short of the mark.
It seems like the prodigal and abandoned love child of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The Light Princess: there are moments/images/impressions that evoke (unnecessarily) both of those productions (the Once-ler is very Willy Wonkaesque and the puppetry reminds forcibly of the visual work in The Light Princess, especially the way the sea and the fish are envisaged) but it clearly has not had the money lavished upon it that either of those productions benefited from. It doesn’t look cheap, and often it looks dazzling (Jon Clark’s lighting is quite magical in parts) but it doesn’t feel more than “make-do” often.
This is not really a criticism of Rob Howell’s design or the puppet wizardry of Finn Caldwell for Gyre & Gimble, both of whom make quite a lot out of very little. It is more a question of the overall artistic vision here. It is not particularly clear how this version of The Lorax is thought of by its creatives. Is it cherished and adored or just “what it is”? It is hard to tell.
This aimless quality affects the form as well.
It is not a musical, despite the presence of a deal of original music from Charlie Fink (who also wrote the lyrics). It is a play with music. It might also be a pantomime of sorts. Whatever it is, it does not really convey its nature clearly. It seems designed for children more than anything, and it certainly captivated the ones who attended the performance I did.
But it is very long given the wafer thin plot. Young attendees fidgeted and fussed while waiting for the bits of the story they knew well to occur; adults seemed puzzled more than anything else.
One suspects that Grieg could have made an excellent one Act work from the original Dr Seuss material; two acts seems a long stretch. It might not if there had been more money to fuel more magic in the design, or an integrated score that enlivened the piece, but absent that investment, The Lorax is left to slightly flounder.
Fink’s music is pleasant but unmemorable. There are a couple of great moments musically but the score has no cohesive whole and not all of the songs progress either character or plot. But the sound that Fink has imagined and created certainly suits the tale being told, and there is no sense that the music is pointless. On the other hand, nor does the score seem necessary. The tale might have been told more nimbly and with greater spirit without the burden of a score.
Drew McOnie choreographs what dancing there is, but it is not show-stopping or even show-defining. Much like Fink’s music, McOnie’s presence is felt but not integral.
The puppets are, however, integral and watching the Lorax shuffle through the story is worth the entire experience. He seems utterly real when he is utterly not. It is difficult not to wonder if all of the central characters might have fared better if they too were puppets lavished with the same kind of keen energy as Lipkin, Cubitt and Thompson expend on the Lorax.
Decked out in various shades of green, Simon Paisley Day’s Once-ler is engaging, with undertones of the worse kind of malice – that borne from ignorance. He doesn’t opt to be a villain’s villain; he is more complex in his approach to the part. In the programme, Grieg mentions that seeing The Lorax from the point of view of the Once-ler transforms the story, makes it “come alive”. This may be true, but in the playing it did not seem like the story was being told from the Once-ler’s viewpoint, although Day did his best to add likeability to the character’s prime characteristics of inquisitiveness and a disregard for consequences, even those carefully pointed out to him.
Actually, Day’s best work comes when he is unseen, except for a pair of vibrant, shining eyes. In this mode, the Once-ler is deliciously gruff and abrasive, a maybe monster lurking in the shadows and tormented by the meaning of the one clue the Lorax left for him – “Unless”. It takes a wide-eyed and trusting youngster to unlock the meaning for him – and this final sequence is beautifully done, sprinkled with hope in the face of abandoned industry and careless pollution.
The fantastical fauna from Dr Seuss’ book are well represented: the Bar-ba-Loots, the Swomee Swans, the Humming Fish and the Donkey are all there, brought to life to varying degrees of success. There is a deal of obviousness about these characters and the action that concerns them; in truth, they need better things to do and they need to do them in better ways. For instance, the scene where the Humming Fish are in their waters may have been impressive but for the same technique being used to represent the waters as in The Light Princess.
The members of the Once-ler’s family are supportive when the riches flow and the Once-ler is chopping down the Truffala trees to produce “Thneeds”, a kind of multipurpose creation which appears to have endless uses, but casually dismissive when the last Truffala tree has gone, the supply of Thneeds dried up, and they abandon him to his fate. Like a fairytale Beverly Hillbillies clan, the Once-ler’s family are all played as nicely bizarre.
There are some tremendous voices in the company and, generally speaking, everyone acts, moves and sings well. Lipkin and Day stand out, alongside Carly Mercedes Dyer, who has an impressive belt which she used to great effect.
In Dr Seuss’ original, the Once-ler came to realise that “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” He was speaking to the young boy to whom he gives the last Truffala tree seed to plant, the first step in reforestation and possible revival of the community lost by the harvesting of the Truffala trees. But the phrase is apt for Webster and Grieg too – someone needs to care an awful lot before this adaptation of The Lorax reaches its true potential.