In these high-tech days, the actorly adage “Never work with children or animals” should surely be updated to include technology. All three play a part in the new musical Doctor Dolittle - based on the classic stories of Hugh Loftus about a quirky, country veteranarian - and, the latter two especially, upstage every human actor, singer and hoofer in sight.
Leading up to the opening, Dolittle publicity focused on the show s 90-some animatronic creatures from Jim Henson s workshop. And rightly so - they are amazing. A daredevil pig named Gub-Gub, a Jabba the Hut-style sea snail, a shaggy Pushmi-Pullyu and an airborne lunar moth are the stars of the evening.
My one complaint on the creature front is simply that we don t get enough of them. When they aren t on the stage, however briefly, the set appears lacklustre. Even when they are, you re craving more, more, more and can t help but feel jealous that, a croaky Julie Andrews-voiced parrot aside, the animals only speak directly to Dolittle (Philip Schofield). Why not give them understandable voices and a few Loftus lines so we could all join in the fun?
The production warrants other complaints as well. Leslie Bricusse s score is irritatingly familiar - a sort of bastardisation of Mary Poppins, Oliver! and The Sound of Music rolled into one. The plot is muddled with lots of loose ends. What, for instance, of the romantic triangle between Dolittle, Emma (Sarah Jane Hassell) and Matthew? And the love scene between Dolittle and Sophie the seal (yes, that s right) is just downright weird.
But these are adult niggles which are compensated for by an under-ten audience who simply doesn t care and an enthusiastic cast who clearly do. Irishman Bryan Smith as Dolittle s sidekick Matthew Mugg - all unruly curls, bounding charm and nice, warm voice - is a real find.
And speaking of warmth, Schofield absolutely exudes the stuff. He may never achieve the reputed cantankerousness of a Rex Harrison (who starred in the 1965 film), but his sunny amiability makes the vast Labatt's Apollo seem an intimate place.
What s more, at this performance, Schofield showed amazing fortitude when that expensive technology gave out on him. Technicians were called onto the stage for about ten minutes when his Flounder ship refused to move. Throughout the tinkering, Schofield held the crowd - including the adult contingent - in the palm of his hand, improvising jokes and humming bars from his alter-ego Joseph, he of the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
Evidently, children s television is good grounding for learning to play a handsome second fiddle to technology as well as kids and animals.