It’s a welcome return for David Greig’s family musical version of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. First seen in 2015, it’s back at the Old Vic, before touring North America.
An environmental, anti-capitalist fable delivered in surreal Seussian rhymes could sound a chore – but Greig’s handling manages to be both cartoon-bright and subtly shaded. True, the ambitious young businessman the Once-ler cuts down the Truffula trees where the Lorax and other animals live in order to make the pointless but desirable Thneeds – but the Once-ler’s never one-dimensional and the story isn’t totally one-sided.
We cheer the Lorax’s right-on campaign against corporate planet destruction – but are reminded that hard-scrabble, impoverished lives aren’t great either. The Once-ler is a dreamer, whose dream gorges on greed and the myth of growth and gets way out of hand. But when told to scale back, the Once-ler reminds the audience that if we stop “biggering” we’ll have to have less of all that stuff we like. And while we do like unspoilt forests, we also like comfort, consumerism and smartphones.
Still sounds a bit heavy? Actually it’s great fun, the book, design and music all zestily inventive. Greig’s verse seems to knowingly raise an eyebrow at its own rhymes. Charlie Fink, formerly of the indie band Noah and the Whale, pulls off an ambitious time-travelling score, which sonically pastiches the relentless march of progress: from homespun folk as the Once-ler strikes out in his wagon to hot jazz as the good times roll, from cock rock accompanying a giant tree-hacking chopper motorcycle to sterile PC Music-style electro-pop for the unveiling of the ultra-desirable Thneed 2.0.
Rob Howell’s stunning design finds anarchically theatrical equivalents to Dr Seuss’s original cartoons: fluffy, multicoloured Truffula trees float up and down, while gulping machinery belches out pollution. Birds and bears flap and tumble in primary yellow or red costumes; the Once-ler’s family are a riot of green, the Once-ler himself eventually preening in verdant pin-stripes.
Under Max Webster’s direction, the show seems less dazzlingly frenetic, more melancholic, than remembered – whether that’s down to familiarity, cast changes, or simply being two years closer to impending environmental doom, I’m not sure.
Simon Paisley Day’s Once-ler seems less madcap and more mournful, while still being immensely watchable: long, lean and green as a bean. But the real star is the Lorax himself, a hugely lovable puppet. Children’s gurgles and chirrups ripple through the auditorium at the arrival of this spry, spirited beast; adults are surely no more immune to his gruff charms. Three puppeteer-actors make the Lorax come alive in every waddle and leap, while a resplendent, spluttering moustache is marvellously expressive; it’s comic, but you can also feel that blustery, indignant sense of right and wrong really resonate with a young audience.
And it’s a young audience Greig’s story finally addresses itself to, with an unashamedly sincere message of hope that they’ll be the change we need to see in the world. Which frankly left me snuffling like a Lorax with something caught in its moustache