06 Aug, 2009

‘It’s a triumph of modern stagecraft’

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

O2, London

One of the first things you notice is how much of the 02 is missing. The dinosaurs seem to have commandeered nearly half the arena for their backstage business. It makes sense – you can’t let them hang around the stage door smoking.

There is an announcement that “the role of Huxley the palaeontologist will be played by Mr Dominic Rickhards”. I hadn’t reckoned on a human actor taking the stage with the animatronic monsters of Walking With Dinosaurs, the arena spectacular which has already sold 3m tickets worldwide, but his presence gives one a sense of scale: some of his co-stars are five times his height.

No one takes much notice of the pre-show warning that the dinosaurs do not take kindly to flash photography, which is surprising when one’s first thought, as a nimble liliensternus steps into the light, is that the barriers between stage and audience aren’t high enough. If it wanted to, it could hop right over. One gets a vague idea of what it was like in the early days of film, when people ran from images of oncoming trains.

Walking With Dinosaurs is, first and foremost, a triumph of modern stagecraft. Even the vegetation is exciting. The dinosaurs are, to a man, brilliant. Some are clearly puppets with people inside, and some are apparently controlled by “voodoo operators” who move little dinosaurs backstage to make the big ones do what they want.

One attribute that distinguishes these creatures from other animatronic dinosaurs is their speed. There’s nothing you feel you could outrun. And yet the show somehow manages not to terrify the legions of five-year-olds in the audience (at that age I would have fainted). Even when the T-Rex bends down and roars in our faces, they just stare, while their parents engage in reckless flash photography.

The show is based on the BBC series, and proceeds much along the same lines. It’s an informative 90-minute journey through Earth’s 163m years of dinosaur occupation. Huxley’s breathless narration keeps the whole thing from being a mere parade of clever puppets and machines. The overall illusion is highly effective, but they let you glimpse just enough of the workings to leave you impressed. There are even a couple of decent laughs.

Walking With Dinosaurs is crowd-pleasing in the best sense, which is probably why it’s sold more tickets than Coldplay this year. It’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it – it may even be cool enough to convert a few creationists.

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