The Enormous Crocodile review – Leeds Playhouse

Elliotte Williams-N’Dure in The Enormous Crocodile. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Hot on the heels of The Witches opening at the National Theatre in London, another Roald Dahl adaptation lands on stage in Leeds, possibly with a bigger bang given the size of its titular character. The Enormous Crocodile is an expanded musical version of Dahl’s 1978 picture book developed and directed by Emily Lim as part of a collaboration between Leeds Playhouse, the Roald Dahl Story Company and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where it transfers next summer.

It gets off to a promising start with a smart scene that doesn’t feature Dahl’s book. It casts the crocodiles of the African jungle as a row of customers at a dentist surgery run by a group of preening Egyptian plovers who pick the leftover bits of the crocodile’s lunches from between their teeth. ‘I’m here for my peck and polish,’ one crocodile proclaims on arrival as bits of zebra, tiger and hyena are plucked from between the Enormous Crocodile’s (Elliotte Williams-N’Dure) sharp teeth.

The Enormous Crocodile decides that for his next meal, he’d quite like to eat a small child to satisfy his appetite. Off he sets to find his victim, encountering Humpy-Rumpy the flatulent hippopotamus (Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings), Trunky the elephant (Charis Alexandra), Muggle Wump the monkey (Robyn Sinclair), and Roly-Poly Bird (Philippa Hogg) along the way, telling them each in turn about his ‘secret plan and clever tricks.’

Philippa Hogg, Robyn Sinclair, Charis Alexandra and Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings in The Enormous Crocodile. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The energetic cast makes the most of El-Bushra’s book but it’s the moments they go off-script with the audience participation where the production feels more alive. Hogg is a stand-out, her bird quivering with fear at the crocodile, and there’s a brief routine with the audience that verges on stand-up as the Roly-Poly Bird questions the sanity of the young audience who offer up spaghetti bolognese and pizza as answers to a question about their preferred snacks.

The cast operates a jungle-worth of puppets designed by co-director Toby Olié’s. The best are the smaller puppets on display; a pair of frogs, a pair of birds, and the Egyptian plovers, and he manages to give a sense of the scale of the enormous crocodile, the elephant and the hippo without dwarfing Fly Davis’s botanical set. That said, Williams-N’Dure does look to struggle a little at times with moving the cumbersome ride-on crocodile puppet with a feeling that a higher seat wouldn’t go amiss.

Musical compositions are provided by Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab and Suhayla El-Bushra, with additional lyrics and music from Tom Brady. Gallab’s music has a soulful, jazziness that allows our menacing croc an opportunity to scat (impressively voiced by Williams-N’Dure), but each number feels like a blueprint for the next, and El-Bushra’s lyrics take a relatively paint-by-numbers approach, presumably aiming for mass appeal for the over-fours the production is targeted at. The songs about being brave and conquering your fears are overly earnest and increasingly trite as the musical progresses – and there is an odd unintended similarity between one song and ‘I Believe’ from the Book of Mormon.

Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings, Philippa Hogg and Elliotte Williams-N’Dure in The Enormous Crocodile. Credit Manuel Harlan

The production also struggles to replicate the book’s ending and the crocodile’s departure on stage, which is jarring and feels a bit misjudged. But it’s important to recognise the target audience here. When the production was announced The Roald Dahl Story Company’s executive producer, Anna Schmitz, and its artistic director, Jenny Worton, said, “We wanted to make a show that speaks to four-year-olds, delights their older siblings and treats their parents to some brilliant music.”

Do the four-year-olds and their older siblings in the audience seem bothered by the repetition? Not in the slightest. Do they seem entirely overcome with joy at the near-riotous moments of audience participation? Absolutely. Do they laugh and scream with glee when the crocodile gets ‘sizzled like a sausage’? You bet.

The Witches and The Enormous Crocodile form part of a series of theatre works coming out of the Roald Dahl Story Company, with a major large-scale circus inspired by his stories and an online theatre version of The Magic Flute still to come. While our enormous crocodile loses his ability to chomp in the end, the Dahl estate shows no sign of losing its commercial bite.

The Enormous Crocodile is at Leeds Playhouse until 6 January 2024 and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in Summer 2024.

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