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June 5 2016, Reviews The David Beach Competition

Doctor DolittleDD

WODS Musical Theatre Company

The Playhouse Theatre, Weston-super-Mare

Friday 4th June 2016

The tale of a failed early Victorian doctor, who makes a radical career change to become a vet, is tried for murder and subsequently ventures forth in search of a mystical giant pink snail, acquiring the skill to talk to animals on the way must be considered phantasmagorical at least. Add to the mix many animals, love interests and larger-than-life characters plus a substantial handful of songs and dances then we drift into the area of the downright silly. I must confess to not having been the biggest fan of the show itself, finding the story a little flimsy and insubstantial, the majority of the songs not being the greatest and the script to be slightly laboured and sometimes unfunny. In recent years, however, the introduction of splendid animatronic puppetry and special effects in professional West End and touring shows have used spectacle to overcome the weakness of the piece to some success. Can the show be successfully produced by an amateur group? Travelling to Weston on Friday night I was considering the selection of Doctor Dolittle by the excellent WODS team and wondering how they would, with their undoubted abilities and talented membership, overcome my perceived weaknesses in the piece.

We were greeted and looked-after royally  by the friendly and very charming Carrie Buck (one of the show’s choreographers) who enthused cheerfully about the show and the great atmosphere which has pervaded rehearsals involving many children and, from the sound of it, a huge amount of fun. This is always great to hear: an established, sizeable and very well respected society like WODS, performing an a great venue like the Playhouse but still taking the time to ensure fun and enjoyment at rehearsal – especially for the younger cast members who will, after all be the future for the genre: Its not always about grim hard work!

From the outset it was clear that joint directors Aaron Pengelly and Blair Ruddick were full of great ideas. The back-drop, which remained throughout the show, was a giant, open book onto the pages of which back-projection gave a huge variety of images – many animated, to give terrific variety to scene settings: from austere courtroom to brilliant, moving, ship-at-sea; from warm fireside study to tropical paradise. All very impressive, well conceived and well managed. Scene changes were all nicely smooth and neatly delivered, Stage Manager Russell Scott’s team working very well indeed.

From he initial court-room scene through to the finale it was also clear that Dave Bailey as Doctor Dolittle himself was very much in command of the stage and the role. Adopting a sub-Rex Harrison demeanor and tone worked very effectively with the major added advantage, which Harrison lacked: Dave Bailey can actually sing! Bev Priest as Polynesia the parrot managed the role well – working as puppeteer and character-actor in Avenue Q style can be hugely challenging but her experience, confidence and dancer’s elegance certainly showed through. Blair Ruddick (in addition to his directorial duties) gave us a pleasingly believable Irishman in the part of Matthew Mugg. Blair showed off his considerable talents as singer, dancer and comic actor. The love-interest angle was personified by Alysha Anderson as Emma Fairfax – for whom Mugg falls, though she is more fascinated by Dolittle. Alysha looked great in the role, acted convincingly with clarity and sincerity and gave us some lovely singing. Her upper range was impeccable and powerful lower register impressive. Big, bad Judge General Bellows was played with great character by Warren Ingham-Brown who captured the General’s larger-than-life bluster and pomposity to a tee. Other supporting roles performed well too: Ten-year-old Harrison Buck (son of proud Mum Carrie – our host) played Tommy with great confidence – even when carrying a very real, live duck under his arm! (The role was doubled on alternate performances by nine-year-old Freya Grafton who I hear was equally strong); Paul Reading’s Straight Arrow worked well; Jed Shears and Kate Emery as Albert and Gertie Blossom gave us energy and enthusiasm. Even the animals- Chee Chee the chimp (Risuna Mabasa on Friday, alternating with Nadia Millard), Gub Gub the pig (Rick Brown) and Jip (Yvonne Lewis) added extra colour and physicality to the piece.

Musical Director Kevin Joint headed a strong, high quality orchestra – pleasingly, for me at least, located in the traditional ‘pit’. Singing from principals and chorus was always tuneful and clear with amplified sound being equally clear and well managed. Dance and movement worked neatly and showed the results of some hard rehearsal under Choreographers Carrie Buck and Bev Priest.

Lighting, however was, very surprisingly for the WODS team, rather disappointing and might be seen as ill-conceived: many too many seemingly unnecessary changes, cues missed (a spectacular tumbling move by Chee Chee was performed in almost total darkness and missed by most of the audience) and the positioning of several lamps shining directly into the audience’s eyes made for very uncomfortable viewing for quite long periods – a shame.

The show, for me was a little long (I notice that profession touring versions of the show often omit several songs to shorten it slightly) and the pace felt a little uncertain at times but, all-in-all, and if the reaction of the audience is anything to go by (and what better gauge can there be?) it worked. I liked the real animals very much and was delighted to see so many youngsters involved. I loved the effects and the design – the ship, the scenery, the balloon landing and the huge book. I had slightly less love for some of the animal costumes (sorry to those who made them) but as writer Leslie Bricuse said “for the stage version to work the animals must be believable” and without an enormous budget and Jim Henson’s workshop this will always be a problem for any amateur group.

Well done to WODS for selecting a ‘different’ show and well done for thoroughly enjoying making it. I suspect that the directorial pairing of Aaron and Blair, in conjunction with the undoubted talents at WODS will very soon hit upon something very special. This show was very nearly there and I look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

Thanks for inviting me

 Ian