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The Lorax (Old Vic)

Max Webster's 'colourful and brilliantly innovative staging' of David Greig's adaptation comes to life at the Old Vic

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It takes you ten minutes to read Dr Seuss's environmental fable of waste and destruction, but just over two hours to sit through Max Webster's colourful and brilliantly innovative staging of David Greig's adaptation (the cutesy computer animated movie played a mere 95 minutes).

The story outline is the same: a small boy visits a devastated area of land and asks the reclusive Once-ler (Simon Paisley Day), through a telephone hose, what happened; Greig's invention is to show a rejected Once-ler having to make his way in the land of the Truffula Trees, whose tufty foliage he purloins to create a mass market industry of knitted Thneeds. A survival plan becomes a death sentence for wildlife.

Who needs Thneeds, anyway? We never really know, but the show explodes into a sci-fi industrial nightmare of production, creating a mass exodus of animals echoing the Once-ler's own departure. His opponent in all this, of course, is the little orange Lorax, who speaks for trees and who is also in charge of the Brown Bar-ba-loots "who played in the shade in their Bar-ba-loots suits and happily lived, eating Truffula Fruits."

The Lorax looks like an economy size orange jelly-bean or peanut with currant eyes and a big fluffy yellow moustache. He's not played by an actor, but mobilised by three puppeteers, Laura Cubitt, Ben Thompson and Simon Lipkin, Lipkin voicing the little chap and singing his songs of complaint and despair. This makes him, of course, the natural hero of the story, though Paisley Day's retreat to his shack-like eyrie, whence he peers in goggle-eyed optics that seem innately sad, tempers his crust of nastiness with a few glimpses of susceptibility.

The songs of Charlie Fink, former frontman for Noah and the Whale, are serviceable rather than memorable, but they are charged with great energy by a hand-picked ensemble that includes Penny Layden, Richard Katz and Ebony Molina, with Emily Houghton as a toothy, uncooperative donkey.

The smog from the factory forms a pink sheet which engulfs the poor Swomee-Swans, one of whom dances an elegant dying swan routine devised by Drew McOnie, and the environmental disaster is contained in the second act framework of a television news report. Greig's dramatic structure and narrative ideas are mostly spot-on, though some of his new verse (or doggerel) doesn't have the nonsensical vigour of the Seuss juice he's diluting as a means of stretching out the book's pictures into theatrical dimensions.

There's a similar process in Rob Howell's designs, which take a Seuss cue in the Once-ler's shack, the Truffula Trees and the factory, which then produces the most frightening gadgetry and all-conquering tree-chopping equipment. A programme note suggests that the destruction of our natural forests could be kept in check. The Lorax hints otherwise: human nature wins out over nature and repents too late.

Dr Seuss's The Lorax runs at the Old Vic until 16 January.