Review: The Lorax (The Old Vic, online)

Max Webster directs the live-streamed piece from the Old Vic stage

David Ricardo-Pearce and Ben Thompson
David Ricardo-Pearce and Ben Thompson in rehearsals
© Manuel Harlan

I managed to miss David Greig's adaptation of Dr Seuss's The Lorax when it was first staged at the Old Vic in 2015 – and again when it was revived. My children had reached an age when they wanted to choose their own theatre outings, and a fable based on a 1971 children's book about the dangers of unfettered capitalism and destruction of nature probably wasn't it.

They missed out. It has been a great pleasure to discover it via Old Vic: in Camera, the fifth of the theatre's productions to be streamed live from an empty theatre. It's a terrific show, preserving Seuss's whimsy and his complex rhyming schemes, but expanding and updating his message with topical references and fabulously varied songs, courtesy of former Noah and the Whale front man Charlie Fink.

Even better, despite the essential bleakness of its subject matter, it has an exuberant brio in its story-telling that takes us, in just under two hours (with interval) through the terrible repercussions of the meeting between Jamael Westman's The Once-ler, a man with no prospects, and the Lorax (voiced by David Ricardo-Pearce), protector of animals and the multi-coloured Truffula trees that take a century to grow to.

That doesn't stop The Once-ler chopping one down to do some "no knotted knitting" to create a shapeless and pointless Threed, which before you know it has become the next big thing and necessitated the cutting down of more and more of the forest, to feed the hungry maw of his factory. "I had to go forward," he says, in justification. "There was no end to forward till I got to the end."

The narrative is superbly controlled, explaining The Once-ler's motives, even as it shows the terrible effects of his actions: the pollution that chokes the wild swans, strips the bears of their habitat and clogs the lungs of the singing fish. Each horror is graphically realised in Rob Howell's vivid design, with great globs of slime emerging from the Threeds factory and shiny plastic farts for the dying bears.

You can imagine the impact on stage. On screen, it poses challenges with director Max Webster opting for a CBeebies approach which frames the action in circles and bubbles, allowing multiple images at the same time. This sometimes pays brilliant dividends, as when The Once-ler introduces his new fashion range and a repeated chorus line of Drew McOnie's choreography spreads across the screen. But at other moments, it has the effect of making the action seem more childish and coy than it is.

Nevertheless, the inventiveness of the telling breaks through the format. Westman, fresh from his leading role in Hamilton, is an engaging villain marking with vivid grace the trajectory from enthusiastic young man just trying to please his horrible family to smooth-talking exploiter. He sings beautifully, as do all of an incredibly hard-working cast of nine. The Lorax conveys a great range of feeling which is all the more extraordinary when you realise he is a puppet with fixed eyes.

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