REVIEW: DOCTOR DOLITTLE (New Theatre Oxford) ★★★

Hugh Lofting’s 1920 children’s book, Doctor Doolittle is on permanent re-order in Waterstones’ across the country and remains up there in popularity alongside the classics of Lewis Carroll and A A Milne.

The good-natured and zany Doctor Doolittle character has extended to many films over the years as well as musical productions. This particular revival, which focuses on the classic retelling and veers assuredly right of the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy, took Oscar-winning Leslie Bricusse a year to adapt.

Bricusse is 87 and should be kicking back somewhere sunny and coastal but understandably felt it necessary to progress the story into the modern day. In the programme, producer John Stalker states this as making the story appropriate for the ‘#MeToo era’ by which I assume he means simply free of sexism, unlike the original 1967 film.

This is tentatively nodded to as Emma Fairfax stands up for her contribution on the ship, ‘The Flounder’ as the group set sail on an ambiguous quest concluding at ‘Sea Star Island’. Beyond this, however, the characters fall into fairly generic gender roles as Emma slaves away in the kitchen for the Doctor despite his consistent rudeness towards her. Additionally, in the film, the romance between the Doctor and Emma is now changed to a more age appropriate affair with Matthew Mugg, the Doctor’s assistant.

The story, set ‘about 100 years ago’ is an amalgamation of several different books and feels completely jumbled, to the point where an abundance of events interrupt the central quest and result in the audience forgetting what the main point is. The puppets by Nick Barnes, although bizarre – including a double headed llama and a giant sea snail – are gorgeous, particularly the Doctor’s trusty parrot, Polynesia voiced cheekily by Coronation Street’s Vicky Entwhistle. The same credit unfortunately cannot be extended to the other two celebrity castings in the show, Mark Williams who plays the Doctor (Harry Potter, The Borrowers) and Brian Capron who plays Albert Blossom/Poison Arrow (Coronation Street, Grange Hill). Both give distinctly lacklustre performances, paradoxical and disappointing when set aside the exuberance of Patrick Sullivan (Matthew) and Mollie Melia-Redgrave (Emma).

The songs are equally forgettable and coupled with a distinct lack of humour, there is something which doesn’t quite work about this family show, despite the grandioseness of its production.

It was recently announced that the UK tour of Doctor Doolittle has been cancelled and this will be the last venue on the tour. As with all cancelled tours, it is a real shame that several performers and technicians will be out of work, not to mention theatre programming becoming off kilter across the country. However, to me it would seem sensible to store up the exquisite puppets and try again in a few years – with a back to the drawing board approach to the script – and focus more on fun and less on complication.

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten


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