Listening to Alan Bennett read The Story of Doctor Dolittle is the next best thing to borrowing someone's kindly British grandfather for a marathon round of bedtime stories. Bennett seems to have an unlimited supply of voices, accents, and inflections on the ready, which he calls upon to impart each of Doctor Dolittle's animal companions with a distinct personality and voice.
Bennett's reading of the classic children's book is deliciously whimsical. As the tale opens, Dr. John Dolittle is on the verge of the realization that he's just not much good as a people doctor--his earnings have dwindled to a paltry sixpence a year. He takes the advice of his creaky-voiced 183-year-old parrot, Polynesia, and learns animal languages. As an animal doctor, he's brilliant and soon finds himself and his animal friends sailing to Africa to treat an epidemic among monkeys. With no trouble at all, Doctor Dolittle cures the monkeys, but he and his menagerie become embroiled in one adventure after another. They narrowly escape sinking in their leaky ship, thanks to some stowaway rats with surprisingly cultured and well-bred diction, who alert the doctor just in time. The doctor and his friends later run afoul of the Barbary pirates, known to be "a bad lot," for whom Bennett devises a hilariously unidentifiable but thoroughly villainous accent. With the help of some fast-talking (and hungry) sharks, Doctor Dolittle "persuades" the pirates they'd be much better off as birdseed farmers.
The adventures are exciting, but not frightening. Bennett's reassuring voice and the fact that the doctor always forges a peaceful solution to each predicament make the recording appropriate for small children. Adults, too, will find the stories appealing and are certain to appreciate the understated social satire occasionally voiced by the perceptive animals. The reading is rounded out by delightful orchestral selections from Camille Saint-SaŽns's "Carnival of the Animals," which signal the beginning and end of each tape side. (Running time: 150 minutes, two cassettes) --Elizabeth Laskey