Ten minutes into the first act and although the ill-fated ship ‘Flounder’ was not so much as a glint in the good doctor’s eye, I had already started to come over queasy. Admittedly the raw material was pretty dire in the first place, but Hugh Lofting’s original stories about a country doctor turned polyglot veterinarian were given a rehashed feel in Leslie Bricusse’s musical adaptation.
The ingenuous plot lacks conviction, the relationships between the three main characters - Dolittle, Matthew and Emma, in what loosely resembles a love triangle -are unresolved and, out of a rhythmically weak score, "Talk to the Animals" remains a clear favourite whilst "I’ve never seen anything like it" manages to raise a heartbeat.
In a kind of up-tempo Animal Farm meets Treasure Island with Muppets, Russ Abbot’s genial Doc whose dream is to recover the elusive Great Pink Sea Snail, is like a Victorian Noah, save that the animals don’t come in pairs. Sitting in the circle, I felt like Alice peering down the rabbit hole into his higgledy-piggledy ‘ark’ crammed with Jim Henson’s animatronic creatures who along with Mark Thompson’s remarkably detailed sets are the main highlights. The slithering sea snail looking like an extra from Ghostbusters is the best of the catch, although some of the ‘human’ animals are less credible – poor Pushmi-Pullyu was like a high class pantomime cow.
Although no one could equal Rex Harrison’s magnetic irascibility, Abbot makes a warm, likeable ‘animal whisperer’, whilst Liza Pulman’s Emma Fairfax successfully overcomes her character’s inward-looking priggishness in the second act, which propitiously dawns like spring after a long hibernation.
Here Emma and her shipwrecked pals loosen their Victorian strait-lace and proceed to enjoy themselves. And so does the music: Pulman’s lead vocals in "The Voice of Protest" has a rousing, unwavering spirit and David Ganly’s Matthew Mugg acquits himself with a natural ease in the pleading "Where are the Words".
The show’s pro-animal rights stance shoots through a singular ray of hope in an age when vegetarianism is like witchcraft, purveying a message of moral goodness. But after two and a half hours of enduring the obligatory silver spoon around my neck, half-heartedly dipping into Dolittle’s bottomless pot of honey, I must confess that the thought of jumping astride the giant lunar moth and making for the illuminated sign at the rear of the auditorium, was rather tempting.