Usagi Yojimbo (Southwark Playhouse)

Hai-yah! Comic-book heroics are brought to life in this sporadically exciting show

Jonathan Raggett as Usagi in Usagi Yojimbo (Southwark Playhouse)
Jonathan Raggett as Usagi in Usagi Yojimbo (Southwark Playhouse)

Stan Sakai's sword-wielding rabbit Usagi is a long-running Japanese comic character who's pretty much the love-child of Akira Kurosawa and Beatrix Potter. Now, just in time for Christmas, the lettuce-loving Samurai reaches the stage in an adaptation by Stewart Melton that is, intermittently at least, good fun.

Young Usagi is sent away by his mother (Amy Ip), along with his friend Kenichi (Siu Hun Li), to train as a warrior with the mysterious master Katsuichi. Once he has become a fully-fledged Yojimbo, Usagi arrives back home just in time to save the family homestead from marauding bad guys.

Amy Draper directs this nicely derivative tale inventively and economically, populating Ele Slade‘s plywood-and-bamboo thrust stage with a genial quintet of multi-tasking actors. There are secret traps in the floor, a thrilling percussion score composed and played live by Joji Hirota and, to root the show in its comic-book origins, some very good animated projections by Nina Dunn. Yet it doesn’t quite hang together.

Critically, the original stories’ anthropomorphism is turned on its head and we quickly forget that these characters are suppose to be animals. When a man plays a rabbit who behaves like a man, then a man is what we see – albeit one with floppy ears. So that bit of magic is lost from the get-go.

Then there’s the dramatisation, which lacks momentum. Who is the target audience? Usagi Yojimbo is quite diverting for adults, but I fear they’ll think it’s a children’s show and stay away. It’s surely too slow for very young children though, even at a mere unbroken 90 minutes. That’s because Samurai training involves trials of patience and repetition, and when Usagi lives through his chores, so do we. "Chores teach discipline!" roars Dai Tabuchi‘s leonine Katsuichi after 50 minutes. Yes, but I rather fancied a night out.

Things perk up on the hour mark when the master informs Jonathan Raggett‘s puppyish (sorry, bunnyish) Usagi: "Warm up is over; now we train". At long last, swords are crossed in earnest. Ronin Traynor‘s rousing fight choreography proves well worth the wait, and on 75 minutes – I looked at my watch rather a lot, as you can see – Usagi is the finished article and ready to kick some serious cotton-tail. The show's climactic flourish of entertaining mayhem flies by in a nose-twitch.