It’s not often that I see a production that genuinely moves me, but the Old Vic’s first ever stage production of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax was one of those rare occasions. For those not familiar with the work, it’s a children’s story about a tree guardian who lives in a beautiful, natural paradise. One day it is infiltrated by a gaggle of villagers who chop down the trees and destroy his home for profit.
The original book, written in 1971 by Theodor Seuss Geisel, is renowned for its mellifluous rhymes and environmentalist message, and David Greig has written a superb, updated adaptation, which, combined with direction from Max Webster and music from Charlie Fink, brings the book to life. It is genuinely hilarious coupled with heart-wrenching moments of sadness.
Bec Chippendale’s design of the Lorax’s wacky habitation is equally enchanting, and features an abundance of ‘truffula trees’ with furry black and yellow trunks and a multicoloured dandelion-like canopy which are ingeniously attached to the ceiling, allowing them to be lowered and ‘grown’ according to the story. There are so many in fact that you need at least six pairs of eyes to see them all. The hysterical ‘Moof Muffler Hill’ (a sort of factory for manufacturing items that rhyme together) is equally well conveyed as a place of foulness and is suitably rickety, old and dark.
Meanwhile, Rob Howell’s choreography works seamlessly with the set, and a smog which infiltrates the forest is illustrated by dancers floating a thin polythene sheet through the forest – a brilliant metaphor for the suffocation of fauna. Irene Bohan’s costumes also add a huge amount to this production, with the ‘Swommee swans’ dressed in bright orange and yellow feathery outfits, as the break dancing ragged red bears and adorable seal-like fish are brought to life by puppeteers. The villagers are enswathed in rags of emerald green, a colour suitable for the greedy.
The Lorax (voiced by Simon Lipkin) is another peculiar character, and one which I’ve always been put off by aesthetically. The original illustrations remind me of a small, fat ‘Asterix’ character, representative of an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. But these impressions couldn’t be further from the truth. In this production, the Lorax is a small, furry and adorable puppet whose small stature makes him appear vulnerable to the powerful Once-ler and out of control villagers. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the poor creature.
The Once-ler is a complex character played by Simon Paisley Day. But whilst he is the catalyst for the deforestation, we can never truly hate him because we can identify his remorse and his weakness to the pressures of the society around him. Ultimately he is a lonely character who seeks to befriend the Lorax, unaware of the harm he has caused him.
The score has touches of American folk, swing and rock played by a live band on stage with one stand-out performance coming from the band of lawyers, who were revising the Once-ler’s contract to cut down trees. Led by Melanie La Barrie, a fantastically effortless singer, the trio convince the Once-ler than he could ‘be a great man’ not just a good one. The Once-ler goes mad with greed and creates a rocking, rolling ‘super axe hacker’ to cut down the remains of the forest.
At the end of the production, it wasn’t just me wiping away tears. Everyone was fighting them back, largely because the message of this story is sadly more relevant now than it’s ever been. We ignore the widely under-reported deforestation crisis in Indonesia and the struggle of the Brazilian government to stop the devastation of the Amazon. As one of the villagers pointed out during the production, ‘who cares?’ Well, hopefully the people who see The Lorax will. For ultimately the children of today may be the ones who help restore what has been taken away.
The Lorax is an incredible production that will bring out your inner environmentalist in a very charming way. It’s not preachy – its funny and peculiar, with the notion that ‘trees can’t speak for themselves’ actually prompting me to make a donation to the World Land Trust. The more people that have the opportunity to see this fantastic musical, the better.
Dr Seuss’s The Lorax at the Old Vic Theatre until 16th January 2016. For more information and tickets visit the website.