Colourful, feel-good and more than a little bit mad: Seussical is pretty much everything you’d expect from a musical based on the stories and characters created by Dr Seuss. Whether you grew up with the books or, like me, only know the basics (The Cat in the Hat, essentially), there’s plenty to enjoy and just as much to bemuse in this utterly bonkers but ultimately heartwarming show.
Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and co-conceived by Eric Idle, Seussical brings together various Dr Seuss creations, but its central plot is based around Horton the Elephant (Scott Paige), a kind-hearted soul who rescues a tiny planet after he hears its inhabitants, the Whos, calling for help. Despite being bullied by the other animals – particularly the Sour Kangaroo (Ngozi Ugoh) and monkeys the Wickershams (Adam Dawson, Robbie Fell and Rhys Benjamin) – he refuses to give up on his new friends. Among these is young Who Jojo (Anna Barnes), who’s constantly getting into trouble because of her wild imagination, but is encouraged to keep thinking Thinks by her guide, the mischievous Cat in the Hat (Marc Pickering).
The original show – first performed on Broadway in 2000 – was split across two acts, but this production directed by Immersion Theatre’s James Tobias condenses the story into a single act of 75 minutes. In doing so it sets a pretty frantic pace, with musical number rapidly following musical number, and very little in the way of spoken dialogue (although what little we do get is, of course, in rhyming verse). This means the whole show is something of a whirlwind – but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not so much the plot that’s important as the messages we take away from it. The importance of imagination, kindness, loyalty and being true to yourself all come through loud and clear, whether you’re eight or eighty, and are guaranteed to send you home feeling all warm and fuzzy.
The musical numbers, though not all that memorable (with the conveniently catchy exception of the finale), are enjoyable enough and well performed by the cast. Scott Paige is a sincere and instantly likeable Horton, and there are strong vocal performances from Amy Perry, Ngozi Ugoh and Katie Paine as Gertrude (a bird who’s in love with an unsuspecting Horton), the Sour Kangaroo and Mayzie La Bird respectively. But it’s Marc Pickering who steals the show, with an impeccable comedy performance as the Cat in the Hat. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, and whenever he’s on stage – which is most of the time – there’s never a dull (or in some cases, dry) moment.
Visually the show is, without doubt, a spectacle; Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is bright, colourful and very recognisably from the world of Seuss. In keeping with one of the show’s core messages, Rachel Cartlidge’s clever and vibrant costumes leave a little bit to the imagination; Horton, for instance, is simply dressed in a grey shirt and tie, so it’s up to the audience to take that final mental leap and picture him as an elephant – at which point it becomes entirely obvious that that’s what he is.
An ideal antidote to the dreary winter evenings, Seussical is feel-good fun for the whole family, with plenty of wise words (and a few very silly ones) to take home. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose… and you could do far worse than heading down to Southwark Playhouse for 75 minutes of joyous silliness. And a cat. In a hat. Because what in the world could be better than that?