Deep in the dark depths of Whitechapel, as night gently falls, an astonishing selection of weird and wonderful wildlife makes its presence known within the amazing Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s here that we are led to expect the imminent arrival of not only Sir David Attenborough, but also every animal he has ever encountered…
Even before the lights dim, our dynamic host (Jonathan Tilley) has upped his step count for the day considerably, scouring the auditorium for the arrival of the great man. It’s only when he and his dorky assistant (Jess Clough-MacRae) actually take to the stage that they realise that Sir David and his animals are not actually coming. There’s nothing else to do but act the whole thing out themselves.
Tilley transitions instantly, adopting the wonderfully recognisable, mellifluous voice of Sir David, a feat in itself to be marvelled at. But when Clough-MacRae then transforms into an orangutan we witness not just imitation but a complete metamorphosis. Every bit of her body becomes that creature, from the fingertips, to the toes, to the eyelashes. And that’s only a taste of what’s to come.
This is a masterpiece of physical theatre: it’s hysterically funny yet also complex, clever and detailed. Both performers trained at the renowned Jacques Lecoq theatre school, so have a prestigious background, which has clearly paid off. Clough-MacRae in particular morphs convincingly into a multitude of creatures, from a crab – eyes flicking, pincers snipping, sideways scuttling- to a blue whale (with active blowhole), to an intimidating Komodo dragon. Not a movement is wasted, as she captures the essence of numerous creatures with astonishing simplicity and total commitment.
Clough-MacRae’s incredible eye contact engages the audience in this extraordinary world, making them part of it. Her movement is flawless; both comic yet an eloquent artwork. And the duo work together meticulously to physically extend the storytelling, with terrific use of Wilton’s unique space: a golden Eagle swoops majestically from the rear of the stage right to the very edge of a sea of humans, hunting its prey. There are creatures on the balcony, around the seating and even on the seating (so watch where you book!).
Their physical talent is further underscored with an amazing variety of animal noises and sound effects, which really must be heard to be believed. Meanwhile, the sympathetic soundtrack is hilariously blighted by bursts of disco and inappropriate pop. We journey the globe; from beneath the ocean to the Serengeti, to the outback of Australia. The signature pace of Sir David’s documentaries is recreated with authenticity; poignancy, peril and drama wonderfully complementing the clowning.
In this world of spectacularly creative imagination, the audience are offered many fun opportunities to join in. And in the true spirit of Attenborough a gentle message of ecological fragility arises, with a simple moment of stunned recognition as we see human pollution endangering these otherwise comical and likeable creatures
This show offers incredible physical theatre that will leave your jaw aching with laughter, and it’s very much a family event. On the night, I was impressed by the diversity of attendees. However, I also encountered a terribly badly behaved audience (and that was just the parents!), with constant picnicking, endless texting, and full on conversations. I wondered if it was a relaxed performance because the lights didn’t entirely dim, but couldn’t confirm this. Extra kudos, then, to this talented team for keeping such astonishing focus in such circumstances.
Forget the families: I’d be happy to see this as a cabaret! And I’d like to see it again and again; it’s flawlessly executed and fabulous fun.
Written and performed by: Jess Clough-MacRae and Jonathan Tilley
Produced by: James Seabright and Clownfish Theatre
Attenborough and his Animals plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until 3 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.