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I Want My Hat Back (National Theatre, Temporary Theatre)

This new, somewhat gruesome, adaptation of Jon Klassen's children's book runs over Christmas

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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"HE GOT HIS HAT BACK," yelled a little girl, four at the most, in the front row. And well, yes, she was absolutely right. Marek Larwood's slow-witted bear had indeed got his hat back. Hurrah. What she neglected to mention, however, was the now hatless bunny rabbit on the floor beside him, twitching like a stuck second hand. Or the rabbit's face, frozen in pain but for his chattering teeth. Or, indeed, the red woollen entrails hanging loosely from the bear's lower jaw. Hurrah?

What Jon Klassen's illustrated kids' book leaves unsaid, the National Theatre's stage adaptation makes explicit. Very explicit. Klassen's deadpan drawings show us the bear's search and rescue mission. He plods past the rank and file of the forest asking each in turn if they've seen his hat and, eventually, we see bear and hat reunited. What of the rabbit in the red hat he passed en route? "I would not eat a rabbit,' the bears says, a little too quickly. "Don't ask me any more questions."

Here, we see Steven Webb's upbeat Duracell bunny pinch said hat from the snoozing bear. We see him tap-dancing through the forest, gleeful and behatted. And we hear the sharp snap of his neck when the bear takes it back. It is as gobsmacking a thing as you'll see on a stage. Death: sudden, unexpected, irremediable.

It's all the more shocking because Wils Wilson's production is so utterly, lovably cuddly up until then. Fly Davis's design is a retro delight: a forest salvaged from Oxfam, all orange-brown wallpaper and spidery pot plants. Creatures wear patterned knitwear and snazzy leggings: there's a fox with a handlebar moustache and a tortoise in a cagoule. Larwood's bear wears a balaclava and the house band are stags in short shorts – or le-deer-hosen, if you like.

This is, in essence, a sketch show for kids. Each woodland animal has its own gag: Natalie Klamar's fighting fox holds karate kick poses, a clump of frogs speak through kazoos. Wilson and writer Joel Horwood bolster Klassen's slimline story with protracted nonsense and the Shooting Stars-style surrealism is suped-up by Arthur Darvill's background 'musac' – half lounge jazz, half oom-pah – which bursts, every so often, into big cabaret numbers. Webb delivers a delicious torch song to his new hat, and Naana Agyei-Ampadu rounds the show off as a divaesque madame butterfly.

Mostly, though, this is Bear versus Bunny, and both Webb and Larwood are inspired choices. Larwood, a singular physical comedian with a Play Doh face, translates the expressionless bear into a gormless gurning thing, while Webb plays the rabbit like the rush of a Red Bull – his every reaction maxed out, so that happiness is ecstasy and fear, knee-knocking catatonia. They're a classic combo: rich man and thief, king and court jester – and their costumes, fur-coat and coxcomb, add a subtle political layer. It's a morality play, really, and as the bear sits alone with his actions, contemplating his guilt, the seasons start to change. Autumn leaves drift down. Snow starts to fall. I want to go back.

I Want My Hat Back runs at the National Theatre until 2nd January

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