Review: Dr Dolittle (musical) The Duchess Theatre. Long Eaton. Central Musical Theatre Company.

We all know that Dr Dolittle “talks to the animals”, but aside from this, I know surprisingly little about the story of Dr Dolittle, so it is with intrigue that I take my seat in the auditorium of the Duchess Theatre in Long Eaton. Intrigue is one word to describe the anticipation, but excitement is another; how often does one get the chance to see a veritable menagerie of puppet and animatronic animals on the amateur stage? I learn from the programme that these animals have been specially commissioned by Central Musical Theatre Company and have been lovingly made by Chris Margett who, aside from being a seasoned prop maker and puppet builder, has run Leicester’s own Victorian Model Workshop for the last 30 years. And do these puppets live up expectation? I’m thrilled to say that they certainly do! If you watch this production for nothing else, come and see the magic that is created by these animals, and the expert handling by the puppeteers, many of whom have never performed in this role before.

It’s not just the animals though, the orchestra, under the direction of Musical Director Morris Fisher, is rousing and energetic from start to finish and the use of background projection (Chris Margett and Alison Margett) is imaginative and really helps to transport the audience to 19th Century England. I absolutely love the costumes which are vibrant and exciting.

Director Nigel Taylor has created a wonderful amateur production of Dr Dolittle at The Duchess Theatre Long Eaton.

To be honest, there is much to love about this production and I haven’t even got to the wonderful cast yet. However, I do feel that the production loses its way a little in Act 2, although I have to say that I feel that this is more down to the writing, and the repetitive nature of the Act 2 songs, rather than this issue being specific to this production. Act 1 sets the scene well, framed by a court scene where Dr Dolittle is accused of murdering a woman by throwing her over a cliff, whereas in reality he was giving his seal friend the freedom to swim to the North Pole to reunite with her husband – but honestly who on earth would believe this nonsense? Once we hit the present time, with Dr Dolittle searching for the Giant Pink Sea Snail, the story loses its frame and the songs are less energetic. Having said that, “The Voice of Protest” song really does ensure that the production ends on a high.

Now, to focus on this fantastic cast. Dr Dolittle (Christopher Grantham) is our protagonist and he is perfectly cast. Grantham gives us likeable and charismatic hero but who finds it difficult to relate to people. As an animal lover myself, I can definitely relate to the line “animals are so much easier than people” – I’m sure many readers will relate to this too. I have to say though, it is a bizarre sight to see a man bark at a dog, places glasses on a horse and sing a love song to a seal by the light of a silvery moon. It is this fantastical escape from reality that leaves me with an appreciative smile throughout. Grantham’s vocals are also excellent and he sings the famous “If I could talk to the animals” with ease and the comedy it needs.

Grantham has heart-warming chemistry with Sarah Towle who plays Emma Bellowes…Fairfax…Whatever! The development of their relationship is one of the highlights. I just love it when two unlikely characters meet and fall in love. Both Grantham and Towle play the pretence of lovers in denial with sweetness and naivety. Towle absolutely belongs on the stage and blows me away with her vocals; she has such fantastic vibrato control and some of those whistle notes have my hair standing on end. More than once I find myself holding my breath as she belts out her notes. I think there is sometimes a temptation, if you can belt, to belt, but Towle does not fall into this trap at all, and uses her head voice to really show Emma’s self-doubt. Sarah Towle: what a talent!

Matthew Mugg (Gary Heap) puts me in mind of Bert from Mary Poppins throughout, and this can only be a good thing. He has a heart of gold and is an excellent friend to both Dr Dolittle and Emma. Heap plays this character beautifully and the softness of his vocals in songs such as “After Today” really add to his character. Local boy, Tommy Stubbins, is tonight played by James Breen, and it is definitely the case that he gets one of the loudest cheers during the bows: he echoes the wonderment of the audience and brings a childlike innocence and belief to the tale.

One of my absolute favourite scenes makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a psychedelic cartoon world, as we are presented with the Pushmi-Pullyu and the eccentric cast of a circus. Everything from the costumes (Marion Fisher) and the choreography (Anthony Beaumont-Mills) to the lighting (Stephen Greatorex) and ensemble singing work so well together to ensure that the audience is entertained. A special mention to the actors inside the Pushmi-Pullyu – the synchronisation is fantastic!

If you love musicals such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, you are going to love this show. When you visit, please say hi to Gub-Gub, for some reason, the pig is my favourite puppet – I think it is the shock in his face when the pork sausages are in the frying pan. Absolutely priceless.

After visiting Dr Dolittle at The Duchess Theatre, I can honestly say that I’ve “never seen anything like it” and I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

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