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Attenborough & His Animals at Wilton’s

I had booked this show back in June on the basis of my biology-loving 10-year-old daughter’s fan girl devotion to Sir David Attenborough – an affinity I admired but never quite appreciated until I discovered at the performance that she could mouth Sir David’s narration word for word. For some reason (probably my own lack of attention to a gig that popped up three months ago) I had been expecting a puppet-driven production like a mini-Life of Pi for kids. But the clue to the joy of Clownfish’s production is in the producer’s name; Attenborough and His Animals is a masterclass in physical theatre delivered with virtuoso clowning.

Attenborough & His Animals
Attenborough & His Animals. Credit: Jacinta Oaten

The show begins with a typical backstage farce construct whereby Sir David has somehow not been booked and even a paltry DVD player cannot be sourced to screen his beloved documentaries. I was pleased that the show didn’t dwell too long in this moment of frustration – allowing some tension and mirth to arise amongst the young audience but without milking it, panto-style.

Jonathan Tilley as the would-be impresario bosses his silent lackey, Jess Clough-MacRae, about for a bit – reminding me somewhat of mouthy Penn to mute Teller – as she tries to solve the dilemma. But in short order, Clough-MacRae steals the show enacting all the animals (and some plants) of many Attenborough documentaries whilst straight-man Tilley offers a convincing and consistent Sir David impression. Clough MacRae’s physicality is breathtakingly precise and hilarious. She is enthralling to watch as a crab munching on seaweed or a slow-motion sloth (great detail to the three fingers) on the hunt for a mate.

Both Tilley and Clough MacRae trained at the world-leading physical theatre school Ecole de Theatre Jacques Lecoq and then developed and seasoned their production via the Australian and Edinburgh Fringes and you can tell. It takes an exceptional confidence in one’s craft to attempt to transmit the most polished and acclaimed of documentaries through just two bodies (largely Jess Clough-MacRae’s) and voices, with the very occasional music cue. As the complete opposite of the Life of Pi, there is no spectacular set or rich lighting design or puppetry. The sole props include a water bottle and a plastic bag. Yet the team’s confidence is well-placed and rewarded with an utterly convincing portrayal that enthrals and delights thanks to its simplicity and perfectly observed mimicry of nature’s non-human creatures. In their ability to create marvel, they fittingly deserve to occupy the same standards of excellence and charm the Attenborough imprimatur conveys. Repeatedly I saw joy on my daughter’s face – her eyes wide even when she wasn’t laughing (which was a lot!)

The show continues to deliver treat after treat through Clough-MacRae’s enactments with a splendid finale moment. However, it is a series of (excellent) sketches without much of a through-line or arc. I can absolutely see why Attenborough and His Animals won five stars at festivals. As a 70-minute show, I did crave some story or variation of pace once I became accustomed to the device of physical theatre as the central conceit. Rather like I do in response to the soothing tones of an Attenborough documentary, there were moments when my attention wandered. But also like the storied TV programmes, I was brought back to the moment – although it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say this show delivered as much drama, even if it matched the legendary broadcasts frame for frame in charm.

The team have scaled up the production to reach the rear rows of the Wilton’s traditional music hall layout although I suspect, if you can, it’s worth getting as close to the action as you can. With tickets starting at £11 and the best seats at £20 via a family ticket, Attenborough and His Animals offers fantastic value. As my 10-year-old co-critic described it, this show is ‘silly, surprising and fun!’

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

The magic of David Attenborough live!

A blue whale swims through the depths. Racer snakes pursue an iguana across the desert. Two hapless fools recreate wonderful scenes of the natural world.

Catch this award-winning, five-star show for an epic display of clowning, physical theatre and the largest range of animals you will ever see onstage.

A must-see for the whole family.

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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