Watership Down, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London

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For a Christmas outing free of glitter and glitz, look no further. There is not a furry bodysuit in sight in this staging of Richard Adams’ story of rabbits on the run. Indeed, in a nice reference to the pantomime custom of throwing sweets around the auditorium, the rabbits hand round paper bags full of carrot sticks at the end.

But if that all makes it sound a rather drab evening, nothing could be further from the truth. Serious, yes, thoughtful, yes, a little sombre even, but utterly absorbing.

It’s good story-telling that makes Melly Still’s production so enthralling. She tells Adams’ story properly, with care, not with sentiment. Rather than kit her rabbits out with long ears and buck teeth, Still dresses them in woolly hats and jumpers. The nimble performers use movement – bouncing off tiny trampolines, bolting, freezing and kick-boxing with remarkable ferocity – to convince you of their species. There is a speed and agility to the whole production that says “rabbit”, and a playful theatricality. Rabbit holes are hula-hoops that the actors dive through to safety; lettuces are space-hoppers covered in green leaves on which they bounce and roll around.

But this deceptive simplicity also expertly allows the story’s double focus to emerge. The rough-and-ready inventiveness fits the wartime setting; the rabbits are dressed like second world war refugees; the totalitarian warren they have to fight is run by jackbooted guards. Because Still doesn’t disguise the fact that the actors are human, the social and political resonance of the story is clear and the frightening, feral world the runaways inhabit has greater significance. The rabbits’ characters come out vividly too: the resourceful Hazel (Matthew Burgess), the visionary Fiver (Joseph Traynor) and the impetuous Bigwig (Daniel Williams). And it would be a shame not to mention Richard Simons’ splendid seagull: all empty boasting and haughty disdain.
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