Southwark Playhouse – until 29th December
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The colour and chaos of Dr Seuss’s imagination comes bursting onto the stage at Southwark Playhouse this Christmas in the fun-filled family musical Seussical. The Cat in the Hat acts as compere and mischief maker as two of Seuss’s gentler stories, Horton Hears a Who! and Horton Hatches the Egg, take centre stage.
When Horton the elephant hears a voice from a tiny speck of dust, he places it on a clover, vowing to protect the tiny creature and its home. The speck of dust is actually a tiny planet, populated by the Whos. The Mayor of Whoville’s child, JoJo, is always in trouble for thinking and dreaming too much (encouraged by the Cat), but in her loneliness she forms a friendship with Horton, the giant voice in the sky. The other animals in the Jungle of Nool ridicule and abuse Horton when they find out what he is doing, but Horton refuses to leave the clover and tries to convince them of the Whos’ existence. Horton’s kindness and loyalty are then taken advantage of by Mayzie La Bird, who convinces him to sit on her egg for a little while but then swans off to live the high life in Palm Springs. Watching all of this is Miss Gertrude McFuzz – in love with the oblivious Horton, she seeks medical help to improve her tiny tail feather so that the elephant will finally notice her.
The plot is simple and moralistic, with Horton repeatedly reminding the audience that “A person’s a person, no matter how small” and never breaking his promise to care for the egg and the Whos, despite all the hardships and suffering he encounters. Yes, it’s all saccharine sweet and simplistic, but not every musical needs to be hard-hitting and cutting edge. The music explores different genres but is jolly and generic rather than spectacular. Regardless, this show is ideal for all generations, with the youngest delighting in the colour, movement and slapstick, older children accessing the message of the story without being patronised, and the adults enjoying the ride alongside them.
Director James Tobias keeps the pace frenetic on the glorious multicoloured set straight out of Seuss’s books. The ensemble is fantastic, full of energy and excelling in Chris Whittaker’s camp choreography – the leather jacketed monkeys West Side story pastiche is a real hoot. There are no animal masks, just subtle costume effects – a gold bumbag is the kangaroo’s pouch, and a simple understated necktie is Horton’s trunk.
Anna Barnes does a fine job imbuing JoJo with childish innocence that isn’t too sickly, while Ngozi Ugoh as the Sour Kangaroo lets rip with some mighty powerful vocals. Katie Payne almost steals the show as Mayzie with her showgirl numbers and Amy Perry and Scott Paige are beautifully matched as Gertrude and Horton. Paige is the calm eye of the Seussical storm – his stillness and presence anchor the show, and his facial expressions sell the story more than any words ever could. Marc Pickering is simply brilliant as the Cat in the Hat, acrobatic, mischievous and anarchic – mugging to the audience and orchestrating events onstage – but always guiding young JoJo to use her imagination and become more than she thinks possible. That’s the sort of guardian angel every child wishes for.
With an important message delivered in a dynamic and zany production, Seussical is a perfect festive frolic for families of all shapes and sizes.