“Totally awesome” was the verdict of my 11-year old companion on Doctor Dolittle at the Lowry Theatre. His sister (aged 8) responded with an even more succinct “Wow!” For a family Christmas show, this feels like ‘mission accomplished’ for the Lowry Theatre. And rightly so.
The story of a gauche doctor who decides that his medical and linguistic skills would be more usefully applied to animals has long been a children’s favourite. Although most often associated with the 1967 film starring Rex Harrison, it started life almost a century ago in a series of books by Hugh Lofting, and it is this storybook heritage that comes across in Christopher Renshaw’s production. From the moment we enter the theatre, we are transported into a literary world. Even the bright pink curtain has the feel of a Quentin Blake illustration, and when it opens, the characters emerge from and around a stack of giant Doctor Dolittle books. These transmute during the production – most memorably into the ship which transports Doctor Dolittle and his companions to Sea-Star Island. When we see Doctor Dolittle’s assistant, Matt, standing on top of the ‘ship’ he looks miniaturised by the scale of the book – a book character come to life.
The scenery, too, maintains the book-illustration feel of the piece. Large pastel-painted panels are either fixed together in a slightly askew manner or carried by cast members whose movement reconfigures them as the scenes shift. It is an ingenious design – deceptively simple and utterly charming – that creates and sustains a connection not only to the literary origins of the story but also to the magic of books and their colourful characters.
The magic is sustained through some wonderful puppetry: parrots, pigs, dogs, chimpanzees, sabre-toothed tigers, bears, seals, flying fish, two-headed llamas, unicorns… and, of course, the magnificent giant, translucent pink sea-snail. The technical feat is extraordinary – as is the skill of the puppeteers. When I saw War Horse, I marvelled at the way that the puppetry felt invisible and the fact that, after a very short time, I was entirely invested in the puppets as real horses. This feels very different. Here the puppeteers are as much a part of the action as their puppets. Dressed in bright white (and not in anonymous black), they seem to be lovingly tending their creatures as they animate them. There is even something beautiful and balletic about some of it; the puppeteers operating the sea-snail seem almost to be engaged in a slow-motion dance and have expressions of genuine wonder. I was transfixed by their movement and focus – not as a distraction but rather as an intrinsic part of the experience. It is a very effective marriage of technical brilliance and direction (by Nick Barnes and Jimmy Grimes).
Doctor Dolittle himself is obviously at the centre of the story, and is played with an effortless sense of innocence by Mark Williams. The standout performances, however, are Patrick Sullivan (as Matthew Mugg) and Vicky Entwistle (as Polynesia the parrot). Most of the characters here are fairly flimsy and caricatured but Sullivan brings a subtlety and humour to Matthew that makes him feel more like a real person – and his singing is exceptional. Vicky Entwistle opens the show in her own right and then ‘becomes’ Polynesia the parrot, which she operates and voices with such intensity and conviction that it is simply impossible to distinguish puppeteer from puppet. It feels like something out of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy – Polynesia as Entwistle’s daemon!
All in all, it is a joyous evening. The songs are nostalgic (for me) and everyone involved seems to be putting their heart and soul into bringing this delightful children’s story to life. My young companions are very happy (and not just because of the Maltesers and the interval ice-cream). And I come away in awe of Tom Piper’s beautiful design. Job done, Lowry.