Richard Adams' 1972 novel about a bunch of rabbits looking for a home is probably one of the darker children's stories of modern times. Like all successful books for younger audiences, it has adventure and humour, but heaps of shock and tragedy too. A lot happens to those jumping, long-eared fluff balls and if you weren't at least slightly upset while reading the book, certain traumatic scenes from the subsequent animated film will likely have stayed with you. The same can't quite be said of this production of Rona Munro's smart stage adaptation, which hops, skips and jumps past the sad bits.
Munro's script does do a very good job of thinning down a massively sprawling plot and sticking to all the important bits. A group of bunnies decide to leave their warren on the advice of Fiver, a rabbit who has visions of the future. Off on an odyssey across the countryside they go, looking for a new home together. On the way, they meet an evil dictator bunny, a squawking seagull, a cat (yikes) a dog (double yikes) and get into scrape after scrape.
Adam Penford's production on the small Watermill stage - just down the road from the real Watership Down - has a lovely scrappy feel about it which should delight younger audiences. There's magic in the way the cast become the rabbits, with Naomi Said's movement focusing on little ticks and twitches to give the feel of the animals. There's no fur in sight on their costumes and it's only the movement and the hats - with ears sown on top - to remind you of what they are. The cast of nine swap in and out of many characters and there are some really strong ensemble performances. Though the rabbits were a little too earnest for me, I loved Charlotte Bate's Kehaar, the (here Russian) seagull, who injects some much needed humour at just the right time.
Puppets are used in several scenes, with the dog and cat created from wire and birds created from a single feather and a peg. The soundscape of forest noises - twitches, screeches, scratching and more - are a treat, with the cast rustling paper up close to microphones to create the effect. Dom Coyote's folky songs, sung rousingly by the cast, are also great.
But the darkness of the book, the real highs and the horrible lows these rabbits experience on their journey aren't here. Penford positively rushes past the scene where Bigwig fights General Woundwort, in a finale which doesn't give any real sense of danger. This show sacrifices the drama in an attempt to appeal to all ages.
But though the story is given a family friendly-sheen, there's no getting away from the essential power of Watership Down. Even now it feels extraordinary: an epic and timeless tale of friendship, courage and adventure.