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The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting, adapted by Oliver Gray who also directs


Dartford Open Air Theatre


Star rating: 4


I have been enjoying Illyria’s very distinctive open air shows for family audiences for decades: the company is now in its 32nd year. So I always go with high expectations and this cheerful show delivers the goods – yet again.

Oliver Gray has trawled Hugh Lofting’s twelve Dolittle books to create a theatrical narrative for this show which is a revival from 2018. Thus the first half presents the eponymous, always penniless,doctor becoming a vet because he can talk to animals. Then comes the famous trip to Africa. The second half focuses on the circus and concludes with a pushmipullyu appearance. Along the way, without it becoming over didactic, we visit the evils of fox hunting, bull fighting and exploitation of circus animals.

It’s full of engaging songs. And the reason they engage is that Oliver Gray, who hesitates to call himself a composer, doesn’t bother to be original. We get what works: strong hints of G&S, Oliver! and Les Miserables and some hilarious lyrics. I like, for instance, “The orca from Majorca who’s a most prolific talker” and the wonderful Rat Shanty has been updated since 2018 with Gilbert-esque swipes at privatising the NHS and dealing with sewage in rivers. When we get to Casablanca and the Doctor agrees to take part in a bull fight because he wants to befriend the bulls, it turns into a morris dance (English Country Garden) with musical references to Swan Lake, the Can-Can and Carmen. It’s really very clever.

Illyria’s specific style comprises five talented performers who make split second timing and complex multi-roling look easy. In this particular company Edward Simpson plays the doctor, well meaning but unworldly, while Astrid Miriam Bishop. Nicholas Lee, Callum Stewart and Chelsea Vincent work miracles with everything else around him. One of the problems in an unforgiving open air acoustic like the field Dartford calls its “open air theatre” is making yourself heard but in general this quintet are pretty good at it.

The puppetry in this show is one of its many delights. Dolittle is, of course, surrounded by animals and here they are jumping about convincingly, singing, offering opinions and being captivating. All credit to the people who made them (Nick Ash, Mae Voogd and Alice King) and to the cast who’ve learned to operate them so effectively. I particularly enjoyed the shark who eats the pirate and the pushmipullyu which is done very simply by Vincent and Lee holding a head each and a blanket to represent the body – they dance in synch and it’s good fun.

I do have one reservation though. Nobody expects rapt silence from a large Saturday matinee audience including many children of all ages. Nonetheless there was more restiveness than there should have been at the performance I saw. Surely children could be told that it’s polite to look at and listen to the performance rather than chattering, scrapping and rolling or running about? And if you really have to speak, you whisper. Of course it doesn’t help if the adults with them are casually gossiping quite loudly among themselves. At times I was struggling to hear the performance because of the noise around me – and that’s a great pity when the quality of the work is so good. Could it be that, perhaps, the show is a bit too long for its target audience at nearly two hours including the interval?

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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