It is a sight that would gladden the heart of campaigning television chef Jamie Oliver: an audience of children at one of the season’s first Christmas shows being pelted not with chocolates or lollypops but with shards of raw carrot. Another victory for the food police!
This is only appropriate, of course, as Richard Adams’s 1972 classic children’s book did for bunny rabbits what Kenneth Grahame did for riverbank wildlife and J R Tolkein for the hobbits. Directing and designing a new stage adaptation by Rona Munro, Melly Still continues her campaign to bring boisterous high spirits and a harder edge to children’s theatre that began in her collaborations with Tim Supple at the Young Vic and continued triumphantly last year with Coram Boy at the National Theatre, a show that has already achieved cult status and returns to the Olivier for a straight run tomorrow night (29 Nov).
With Watership Down, she has certainly provided a lively, unsentimental mini-spectacle of anthropomorphic rabbits in woolly hats, trainers, beige jumpers and raggedy trousers leaping about like members of an alternative circus on the fringe circuit. They go down burrows by stepping through hoops. They roll around a green disc of a meadow with life-size cabbages and carrots (one of which transmutes into a pogo stick). And when they squabble, they go kung-fu fighting and kickboxing.
You can forget Adams’s achingly beautiful evocation of the real Berkshire countryside which begins with that famous first line, “The primroses were over.” This is no more an exercise in topographical nostalgia than it is in Beatrix Potter bunnie-dom. This is a harsh world of political reality – oh yes it is – where the Sandleford warren sets off, led by the brave and defiant Hazel (Matthew Burgess), to overturn injustice and oppression in the Efrafa warren where General Woundwort (Barry Aird) and his grey-coated officers keep female rabbits under the heel.
Once this story gets going, all is fairly engaging. The trouble is that much of the first act is, as a narrative, well-nigh incomprehensible and the characters indistinguishable. And in the second act, the ebb and flow of the contest is not sufficiently organised into a proper dramatic momentum.
The nightmare Orwellian aspects are well enough done. And all the rabbity bits of doubt and debate are well expressed with the clever intervention of a javelin-throwing, wounded seagull Kehaar (Richard Simons in a white cap and costume). I am not at all sure, though, that the direction or design is quite right for the proscenium arch. The show looks as though it wants to be somewhere else, somewhere less formal.
But the audience was pleased enough by the end, although I admit I was not myself straining to catch a raw carrot. A few little floppy ears and wisps of hay materialise as happiness settles round the rescue of the does (brightly played by Helena Lymbery and Victoria Moseley), and there is a sterling if sometimes monotonous musical contribution (composed by Harvey Brough) from James Keane, a one-man band on percussion, guitar and upturned, inside-out, moss-laden piano.