Reviews West End & Central Published 18 December 2015

The Lorax

Old Vic ⋄ 4th December - 16th January 2016

Oh, the thinks you can think when you think about Seuss!

Maddy Costa
Credit: Tristram Kenton

Credit: Tristram Kenton

This being Exeunt, I’m sure in your minds
Expecting here words all in verse you would find
It’s one way my fizzy-scritch thoughts to rehearse
But bordering cliche, I’m thinking, the worst.

@DavieGreig, 25 March 2015
3.53pm Been reading Dr Seuss lately. I find I’m thinking in his rhyme scheme. e.g. re. Clarkson ‘I care not one whit for this dumb heap of shit.’

4.02pm ‘Don’t tweet me your polls or your quips or your spats, or your icky sick photos of comical cats. Sir do not tweet to me, sir do not twat!’

Any long-time follower of playwright David Greig will know that his twitter stream subdivides into roughly four tributaries. There’s the political chat (left-wing, utopian-visionary in his desire for social reorganisation, supportive of Scottish independence); mountain adventures (just look at where that bap in his avatar is sitting); giddy delight in decades of indie music; and funny-terrible jokes that revel in deft wordplay:

@DavieGreig, 17 December 2015, 6.41am
Sirrah, hast thee facilities in thy tavern for magical connectivity?
Magical connectivity? Why, fie!
Sup’r and what is the password?

The Lorax is that twitter stream, undiluted, for two hours.

In other words, basically perfect.

If you open your mind,
Oh, the thinks you will find lining up to get loose.
Oh, the thinks you can think
when you think about Seuss!

There’s more to it than that, of course. Just as Greig weaves his inventions and expansions of The Lorax so seamlessly with verbatim text from the story that in places it’s not clear what’s original, what’s new, so Charlie Fink’s lyrics blend with the dialogue, and phrase after phrase is exquisitely Seussian. Fink’s music, too, is a brilliant flitter across styles, each thoughtfully matched to the narrative moment: somewhat bluesy for the introduction of the dirt-poor Once-ler family, grinding out days making mittens of moof (or was it muffins of miff?); a country hoe-down as the Once-ler rehearses his American dream; raucous rock for the introduction of his tree-chopping Super Axe Hacker; garish electro-pop for a catwalk show. Rob Howell’s design is more elegant and crisp in style than the gloop-glump squiggles of Seuss’s illustrations, but retains the humour and eye-aching colour. The puppetry of the Lorax figure – designed and directed by Finn Caldwell (most known for his work on War Horse) with Nick Barnes (Blind Summit) – is fantastic: huffing and puffing with righteous fury, spindly arms poking and tummy protruding, sad-eyed and frowning but with bouffant moustache that tuftily rises whenever he laughs.

And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance!
No former performer’s performed this performance!

All of which would be a delight of itself: the fact that it’s in service of a story about climate change makes it triumphant. Because theatre struggles with climate change. Or, more precisely, theatre has a tendency to become peculiarly, painfully awful whenever it attempts to broach climate change. There’s been a marked improvement since playwrights stopped striving to convey the science (Greenland! Sweet heavens above what a travesty that was) and focused instead on the emotional disorder that can result from contemplating a depleted, damaged world (Duncan MacMillan’s heartbreaking Lungs, the central relationship faltering at the potential impact of having children). But The Lorax – in Greig’s hands – goes further, tracing a potted history of capitalism from industrial revolution through urbanisation to globalisation, while creating a sense of sympathy for the central characters involved.

Admittedly, Seuss makes it easy on his adapters by looking very directly at the correlation between industrial production and environmental devastation, and making his Lorax – who speaks for the trees – the locus of sadness and anger at capital-driven progress. Michael Billington suggests that this vision of destruction makes Seuss prescient; he was, but he was also a political writer who reflected his times, whether by poking at the ribs of racism and prejudice (The Sneetches, Horton Hears a Who) or consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) or unchecked militarism (everyone who voted for war in Syria should be given a copy of the The Butter Battle Book). Anxiety about air and water pollution during the 1960s resulted in the declaration of an Earth Day in 1970; when Seuss published The Lorax in 1971, arguably he was responding directly to that discussion.

Greig’s genius is to make the Once-ler more than a monster: he’s a dreamer, what-iffer, creative, and hungry. Literally hungry: when the play begins, all he gets for breakfast is a single bean, a few oats if he’s lucky. On his journey to Ho Horax, land of the Lorax, he’s reduced to chewing on an old leather shoe. These are jokes, yes, but with the cruelty of truth: and so, when he justifies his actions by saying, “we all have to eat and life’s hard”, you’re forced to pause and think about what life without capitalism, without money, would actually entail. How many creature comforts (such a telling phrase) would you be willing to give up? The car? The fridge-freezer? Mobile phones? It’s easy to contemplate others changing: Greig forces us to ask what we would change in ourselves.

And this mess is so big
and so deep and so tall,
we can not pick it up.
there is no way at all!

There are times when the show risks being a political contradiction. The fact that it’s a show at all undermines some of its environmental anxiety: the programme is very astute in talking about measures being taken to avoid deforestation, but not how theatres as buildings might be, could be, should be working towards lowering their carbon impact. There’s a gorgeous scene in which we see a puff of polluting smogulous smoke emerge from a Once-ler factory: the compound is created on top of a table, quite possibly from discarded yoghurt pots, cereal boxes and papier mâché, but the scene only lasts a few moments, and requires so much lighting to create that particular eerie grey-green wash that it’s hard not to feel distracted by thoughts of energy and waste. Similarly, in a dazzling narratorial intervention, Greig updates the product of Seuss’s story – a woolly “thneed” that might fulfil any need – to give us Thneed 2.0: bright garments displayed in a fashion show that is one of the most beguiling and invigorating vignettes in the whole production. That, of course, is part of the point: capitalism offers bright shiny newness, and anything else looks dour. But it takes a sharp child to see it that way.

And this is, after all, a show for children as well as adults. In that, it is a brave one, because it in no way holds back in discussing the appalling mess we’re in. “Who knew The Lorax was such a depressing story?” remarks one of the characters towards the end: again, joking, but with the punch of fact. Seuss has his Lorax snap that “my poor Swomee-Swans … can’t sing a note” because “no one can sing who has smog in this throat”; on stage we see the bird not only choking but collapse and die. The exodus of the animals, three by three, is genuinely devastating: the Lorax may not have had a tear in his eye but my six-year-old son had plenty of them.

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all!
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
if you make yourselves heard!
So come on, now, and TRY!”

This is the difficulty of The Lorax, book and performance: it puts so much weight of hope and expectation for future change on the shoulders of young people. But who can they see modelling the behaviour that might give them what they need to know how to actually effect that change, rather than just talking about it like the rest of us? Most (middle-class) adults I know boil pots of water without the lid on, set their central heating thermostats at 20-22 degrees, leave lights on willy-nilly, cook more than is needed and throw away the leftovers, use the oven to bake single dishes at a time. And I’m no angel: I wash clothes more than necessary, have 10-minute showers, leave the computer on when I shouldn’t. Our consumption is casual and thoughtless, and can be easily excused because we always have someone else to blame: the politicians failing to make adequate carbon agreements, the voracious businessmen, like the Once-ler, who put profit above care. Perhaps the most truthful scene in the show is one in which the Lorax and his animal friends occupy the Once-ler’s factory and sing protest songs: does it effect change? Well, it definitely exposes the extent of his wrong-doing – but it’s also the prelude to more biggering, more damage. Protest doesn’t work: we know that. So what on earth does?

The Lorax, quite gently, argues for taking personal responsibility: it asks each of us to step up and speak for the trees. But it’s a fragile message, so bright and encompassing in the moment, dissipating too quickly, an impossible dream. (A lot like theatre itself.) I asked my son this morning what he was thinking about The Lorax. “It was very very good,” he said.

“But very very very very very very very sad.”

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

The Lorax Show Info


Directed by Max Webster

Written by Dr Seuss, adapted by David Greig

Cast includes Emily Houghton, Simon Paisley Day, Laura Cubitt, Simon Lipkin and others.

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