BWW Review: SEUSSICAL, Southwark Playhouse
Immersion Theatre's Seussical is a joyous celebration of all things Dr Seuss. It hinges on the story of Horton Hears a Who!, but also features favourites such as The Cat in the Hat in an Emcee-esque role and cameos from The Grinch and the classic Green Eggs and Ham.
Horton the elephant, portrayed by Scott Paige, hears a tiny voice calling for help and vows to save whoever it is. The other animals in the forest don't believe the voice is real, and Horton struggles to stay true to himself in a world which calls him crazy. However, in so doing, he makes friends with others who do not fit in along the way.
Paige plays Horton very earnestly, creating touching duets with both Anna Barnes as Jojo and Amy Perry as Gertrude. This is quite the contrast with his over-the-top, comic role in Eugenius! last month. His stillness and composure among the chaotic energy of the other characters is endearing and affords him as much gravitas as an elephant in a nonsense story can have.
Barnes, a recent graduate from Guildford School of Acting, plays her child's role convincingly with a naive and optimistic charm. Ngozi Ugoh has a spectacular voice, and Adam Dawson, Robbie Fell and Rhys Benjamin make for very intimidating monkeys as they clamber through the audience.
Marc Pickering is superb as The Cat, his standout moment a segment as chat show host Catty Man. He oversees all of the action, disguising himself as different characters so he can interfere as much as possible, and is hilarious each time. Pickering captures the anarchy and irreverence of The Cat through his subtle interactions with the audience throughout.
Rachel Cartlidge's costumes are simple but effective. Although it's clear once each character has introduced themselves that they're dressed as an animal, it's done subtly. The Band Girls' glow-in-the-dark, feathered outfits stand out brilliantly against the pastels of the set, and the oranges and yellows of the Who's costumes add up to a real feast for the eyes.
Chris Whittaker's choreography is very impressive, not in any way appearing restricted by the compact stage. The movements are big, bold and exciting, creating fabulous, unexpected shapes. The performers' energy erupts in the space and, for full ensemble numbers, those who cannot fit on the stage venture into the audience to get everyone involved.
The set design, by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, increases the space upwards, using levels to make the most of the area on offer at the Southwark Playhouse, and the placement of the band above the audience means the whole auditorium is filled and the audience fully immersed. Ben Jacob's lurid lighting design also places us at the heart of a technicolor dream world.
The success of the production owes a lot to director James Tobias's respect for the piece, a show which he says in the programme is very close to his heart. He relishes its intelligence, poignancy, eccentricity and electricity. Tobias states that pertinent issues are "tackled in a sensitive, funny, and ultimately uplifting manner".
This is evidenced by an enraptured audience, who leave discussing how delightful the show was. His desire to create a multi-generational appeal is also achieved, as this production of Seussical successfully realises the characters who are "madcap enough to keep the little ones mesmerised, yet painfully relatable to audiences of all ages".
The story teaches some important lessons through heartwarming and profound rhyming couplets. Horton reminds us regularly that "a person's a person, no matter how small". Jojo, initially punished for her outlandish "thinks", stays true to herself until her originality saves the day. It is worth investing in a programme to be reminded of these pearls of wisdom after the production ends.
However, the one area in which this production jars slightly is the book. Although all the songs and the dialogue between Jojo and the Cat rhyme, there are moments in a few scenes where the rhyme breaks down and the audience is left a little disorientated as the couplets one expects from Seuss never materialise. Also, the full comic potential of an elephant climbing a tree is not really realised.
Though Seussical is a family show, the audience for press night was predominantly adult, with the three or four children treated as real VIPs by the cast. The musical is very silly, as Seuss is in nature, but also charming and rapturously received, creating an electric atmosphere.
Photo credit: Adam Trigg