Matthew Lunn reviews Seussical the musical now playing at the Southwark Playhouse London.
27th November 2018
Dr. Seuss holds a unique place in the canon of great children’s literature. Whilst his characters may not garner the same recognition as those of Roald Dahl, his warmth, wit and wordplay are quite distinctive. This musical, last seen in the West End in 2012, returns to London with Immersion Theatre, running at an energetic, child-friendly 75 minutes.
Based largely on ‘Horton Hears A Who’, but incorporating characters from across the Seuss universe, Seussical is inconsistent, but enjoyable. The Cat in the Hat (Marc Pickering) appears before young JoJo (Anna Barnes), and soon they are transported into the world of Dr. Seuss. Horton the Elephant (Scott Paige) hears a cry from a speck of dust, and realises the tiny planet of Who rests on it. His community respond with a mixture of incredulity and aggression, and Horton must go on a long journey to protect his new friends.
In the Director’s notes for the production, James Tobias writes that Seussical is a beautiful example of theatre which affects multiple generations, addressing “[difficult issues in such a way] that no audience feels patronised”. The latter point is especially well made – Horton’s loyalty to the Who community rests on his unarguable conviction that “A person’s a person, no matter how small”, and his courage is gently asserted throughout. His neighbour and unnoticed love interest, Gertrude McFuzz (Amy Perry), drastically changes her appearance to try and impress him, whilst JoJo is told by their parents (Adam Dawson and Daisy Steere) that thinking is dangerous. In each instance, a powerful message is communicated without preaching to the audience – at no point are we subjected to an expositional figure explaining to us why some things are good, and some are not. Rather, virtue and ignorance are demonstrated through behaviours, and their consequences.
I am less convinced by the piece’s universal appeal, because whilst its messages are very well judged – and in this case, complimented by an excellent cast – the tone is distinctly uneven. Take Pickering’s Cat in the Hat, for instance. He is both a trickster mentor to JoJo, and a near omnipresent narrative catalyst. In this first role, he is a beacon of unabashed silliness and irrepressible energy, banging pots and stirring up trouble. In the second, he is a chameleonic figure, appearing as a series of archetypes to meet the needs of the plot. Ranging from decrepit judge to heavy-accented doctor, Pickering is a joy in these roles, brilliantly utilising his versatile comic talent. Yet it is emblematic of the piece’s imperfect attempt to cater to all audiences, with some scenes designed for adults and others designed for children. Coupled with an unfocused narrative, whose conflicts are rather inelegantly resolved, Seussical lacks the nuance and profound allegorical qualities of great children’s literature.
It is however, a thoroughly entertaining diversion. The cast’s infectious enthusiasm and collectively strong singing prevents the mind from wandering, with several stand-out scenes lingering long in the memory. Paige is a particular delight as Horton, an emblem of supreme goodness with whom we cannot help but sympathise. Perry brings great likeability and humanity to Gertrude, whilst Barnes’s JoJo is a picture of childlike wonder. Katie Paine and Ngozi Ugoh– underused as Mayzie La Bird and Sour Kangaroo respectively – are the standouts of a strong supporting cast.
If you or your children are fans of Seuss, then you will love Seussical. Running at an energetic 75 minutes, the show is an enjoyable diversion enhanced by a very good cast. Its lack of narrative cohesion and variable tone stifles its potential for universal appeal, but overall it is good natured, and good fun.
Until 29 December 2018 at Southwark Playhouse