Arts / Down in the Deep, Dark Wood

ACTOR Jonathan MacMillan is possessed of a resonant voice that sounds just like a Gruffalo, the role he’ll play in the touring production of the same name coming to the Canberra Theatre.

“The Gruffalo”, from top, Jonathan MacMillan, Josh Anderson and Tina Jackson. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

But what exactly is this misunderstood beast, a creature that suffers from pretty well never having been seen?

“I have it on good authority that it is a gigantic monster, originating in England,” MacMillan tells “CityNews”.

And, yes, there are Gruffalos, plural, as they can breed, although he suspects Gruffalos will find it hard to find lady Gruffalos to that end.

“My take is they are a very rare breed,” he says.

“It walks on two legs but at times has a bit of a three-legged appearance, like a grizzly bear with horns on its head..

But hang on, don’t grizzly bears come from America and don’t they walk on all fours? True, MacMillan says, but they stand up to attack their adversaries.

As the actor who plays this lonely creature, the terror of the forest, he feels some sympathy for the Gruffalo.

“He’s more than anything a bit lonely,” he suggests. “His problems are more as a result of his physical appearance than any inherited evil streak, and even if he is a carnivore, he’s by and large unaware of it… This creates quite a bit of danger for smaller creatures.”

The very popular play, “The Gruffalo”, adapted from the children’s book, is soon coming to town with new actors, Josh Anderson, Tina Jackson and MacMillan; new costumes and revamped sets that evoke the Deep, Dark Wood.

The play follows Mouse into the same Deep, Dark Wood, where she encounters the wheeler-dealer Fox, the retired Woodland Air Force general Owl and Snake, the party animal. To avoid becoming dinner Mouse kills their appetite and terrifies them by inventing a monster friend, the Gruffalo. But be careful what you wish for. Mouse almost outsmarts herself when she comes face to face with the creature of her imagination.

“It’s a universal theme,” MacMillan says. But it’s alo enormous fun, with five or so different songs, including a couple of big numbers for Mouse and unique numbers for the main predator.s

“People laugh at the Gruffalo as he is a predatory beast of large size even though he’s the antagonist.

“But the way I see it, essentially, he doesn’t do anything to get out of his nature. That plays a part in the attraction.”

In MacMillan’s view children aged three to five – the target audience – are just starting to get a sense of self and difference from their parents but they’re still so small that they can’t do anything on their own. “Gruffalo is very popular with kids but because he’s very big, they relate best to Mouse,” he explains. “They like the idea of being small and powerless but with cleverness enough to get on top… really the only thing Mouse has is her brains.”

His accent may be deceptively Gruffaloish, but Macmillan spent his youth and early adulthood in Los Angeles, first visiting Australia with a tour in 2012 and moving here, to Melbourne, a little over a year ago.

As a novice college actor, he scored the role of Jean, who turns into a rhinoceros in Ionesco’s play of that name. He judges his greatest success to be in puppetry in the Broadway production of “War Horse” and played Baby T-Rex in more than 30 countries with “Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular”.

“There’s a little bit of an animal theme going on in my career and the Gruffalo is a natural progression,” he says.

“The Gruffalo”, Canberra Theatre, January 27-28, various sessions. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700. 

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