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Watermill Theatre - Watership Down

16th June to 23rd July 2016.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

When Richard Adams’s book was published in 1972, it wasn’t clear if the rather dark story of rabbits fleeing from danger and oppression would appeal to children. As it turned out, the book was hugely popular with adults and children, with more than 50 million copies sold. So, in Rona Munro’s adaptation, how well does it transfer to the stage?

The cast of nine play eleven rabbits and one seagull. The rabbits are clad in (human) working clothes with just two big ears on each hat to bring out their rabbitiness. This works well, and leaves the young cast unencumbered for the very physical action of the play.

In their burrow at Sandleford Warren, Fiver, the Cassandra of the rabbit world, has a vision of blood and destruction. But his big brother Hazel does believe him and a group of rabbits, led by Bigwig and Hazel, set off to find a new home. The bucks need some does to establish a colony and after some ructions with another warren, ruled by the despot General Woundwort, the bucks escape with some does and reach the promised land of Watership Down.

The play is well structured and the rabbit characters well differentiated: Hazel (James Backway) brave and idealistic, with leadership potential; Fiver (Alexander Morris) nervous and burdened with the responsibility for his doom-laden visions; Bigwig (Richard James-Neale) a brave fighter; Blackberry (Joseph O’Malley) the thinker; Edward Bennett as the two totalitarian chief rabbits. These, and the rest of the cast, are convincing and full of energy. Charlotte Bate gives a lovely comic performance as the (Russian) seagull Kehaar, disdainful of the rabbits but helping them to reach their goal.

And the rest of the animals. Director Adam Penford says, “think War Horse, but with rabbits”. Well, we get a dog, a cat, a stoat and a variety of birds, designed by Matt Hutchinson with an assortment of household and scrap materials (such as clothes pegs for beaks). Plus sound effects and animal noises from the cast at the side of the stage. A budget version of the War Horse puppets, but brilliantly done and adding great charm to the show.

There’s music and songs too, by Dom Coyote in the style of folk songs, which go really well with the play, accompanied by a fiddle and an accordion and an occasional bongo.

Add to all this Richard Kent’s simple multi-level set and we have a production bursting with energy that will appeal to older children and adults. And I have to confess to tears welling up at the happy ending.


Review from the British Theatre Guide and the Newbury Weekly News.

Hop on down to the mill

Ensemble brings Watership Down to life in atmospheric family show

Watership Down, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until July 23

The Watermill Theatre’s superb production of Watership Down is lovingly brought to life by a multi-talented cast in this splendid adaption of Richard Adams’s book by Rona Munro.

It is an immensely physical staging, brimful with playfulness and energy. It is tremendous fun and compelling to watch.

The play starts with a young seer rabbit, Fiver, impressively played by Alexander Morris, having a frightening vision of the destruction of the Sandleford warren. Together with his brother Hazel, the excellent James Backway, he tries to convince the chief rabbit of the urgency of evacuating the warren but to no avail.

They decide to leave together with a small group of followers in search of a new safe home, but their journey to Watership Down is hazardous. Thankfully, they have the strong cunning Bigwig, strikingly portrayed by Richard James-Neale, to help protect them but he is nearly killed when he is caught in a snare.

Quite soon, they realize that they are going to need to find some does if they are going to survive.

Edward Bennett gives a powerful performance as the ruthless, tyrannical, evil General Woundwort who is holding the females prisoner and refuses to let any of them leave the overcrowded warren. The brave Bigwig goes undercover in an attempt to rescue the does and the clever buck Blackberry (Joseph O’Malley) is charged with helping to plan the escape strategy.

Life is harsh in the Efrafan warren. Blackavaar (Jess Murphy) is severely punished for standing up to the general. Hyzenthlay (Scarlet Wilderlink) helps Bigwig in recruiting other does to join the escape party. However, Nelthilta (Vicki Manderson) informs the guards of the intended plot to escape.

Charlotte Bate is commanding as the arrogant Russian gull Kehaar, who has an injured wing and is looked after by the rabbits and in return she helps them find the does in their struggle with the Efrafan warren.

This is certainly a rollercoaster ride of emotions, particularly with the poignant ending that brings a tear to the eye.

There is so much to enjoy in this vibrant production, from the excellent ensemble work to the foley-style sound effects and the spirited songs, music (Dom Coyote) and dancing.

Naomi Said’s fine movement direction enables the cast to fully create the rabbits’ gestures in a believable style and Matt Hutchinson’s puppets are beautifully created and operated.

Inventively and skilfully directed by Adam Penford and cleverly designed by Richard Kent with atmospheric lighting by Jack Knowles, this is a thoroughly enjoyable family show that thoroughly deserved the audience’s rapturous applause and is certainly a must-see production.


Review from The Telegraph.

Three stars
The life-span of a wild rabbit isn’t long. It’s a war-zone out there – they can be swooped on by birds of prey, nabbed by badgers, stoats and foxes, and if their burrows are deemed a pest, it’s “bang, bang, bang, goes the farmer’s gun” to quote that old Noel Gay number, or, worse: extermination by gas. Few books have so beautifully captured the precarious nature of the rabbit’s existence as Watership Down, which hasn’t been out of print since the first edition of 1972 and seems to have conferred long life on its author too: Richard Adams is 96.

I spied him in a wheelchair at the same matinee I attended of the Watermill’s summer staging of the novel (as adapted by Rona Munro) – a touching sight. Even if it wasn’t Rabbit Awareness Week (which it is!), the Berkshire venue could hardly be more appropriate – only a few miles north of Sandleford, where the action begins, and not far from the eponymous down in Hampshire where our furry friends end up. Set on their way by the Armageddon of house-building, they’re effectively a small band of refugees seeking fresh pastures to nibble.

The family show is billed as being suitable for those aged eight and up, though I’d say my daughter’s age-group, 11-12, was the more suitable range (she gave it the thumbs-up). Munro’s filleted version eschews babyishness and takes it as read that younger audiences will accept at a stroke grown actors playing the anthropomorphised Bigwig, Hazel, clairvoyant Fiver, et al. Relying on a committed cast of nine, director Adam Penford’s approach is lightly suggestive – woolly caps with grafted ears, scruffy grey and brown costumes with a hint of wartime austerity Britain about them; a simple bunch of stylised movements to denote our lapine heroes’ easily startled essence.

The show plays to the Watermill’s customary folksy, rustic strengths – with live musical accompaniment, occasional bucolic jigs and DIY sound-effects adding to the charm. The cramped nature of the stage serves well too, ledges and ladders evoking the burrows living on borrowed time. 

The incidental dangers need sharpening up (rarely has a stoat looked less threatening than the yoked-together gas-mask and tubing deployed here). But the overall sense of what’s at stake is nicely honoured. The take-home message is about the need to hazard all for freedom, the renegade rabbits challenging the grim, over-populated protectorate presided over by General Woundwort (a stern Edward Bennett sporting eye-patch and butch black leather jacket). And that’s as pertinent as ever.

No beating about the bush, the book is the more satisfying experience, but all the same this gentle digest is well worth the stop-off.


Review from The Guardian.

Three stars
Rona Munro has come a long way since she wrote her adaptation of Richard Adams’ bestselling novel a decade ago. But this play has got legs. And ears and whiskers. It is both charming and disturbing, the fluffiness cut by cruelty.

It’s nice to see the show at the delightful Watermill, nestled in the landscape that inspired Adams’ tale about a group of rabbits who flee their threatened warren and set up on their own, only to run into conflict with another warren that’s run like a totalitarian regime. The cleverness is that you constantly see the human beneath the fur (or, in this case, the woolly hats and knitwear). Adam Penford’s staging is as fresh and sweet as new morning grass, full of rough invention and on-stage Foley effects that conjure the sound of the whistling wind.

The show is greatly helped by the presence of Edward Bennett as the villainous General Woundwort, and an ensemble of newly graduated actors who prove that there is more to playing rabbits than bouncing around. Alexander Morris is compelling as the Cassandra-like Fiver, whose visions of mass slaughter lead to the evacuation of the original warren; James Backway mines plenty from the sketchily written Hazel; and Charlotte Bate is a treat as the comically arrogant seagull, Kehaar.

Both the script and the staging sometimes lack a narrative clarity, but there is much to enjoy as the fur starts to fly.


There are reviews from The Stage ("a charming – and at times joyful – adaptation of an enduring children’s classic" 3 stars), WhatsOnStage ("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" 3 stars), Daily Info ("Adams' well loved characters have been brought to hopping, twitching life at the Watermill"), GetReading ("a funny, thoughtful and creative masterpiece" 5 stars), Oxford Times ("the show is put over with great zest... an engrossing piece of storytelling" 4/5), The Reviews Hub ("a superbly talented cast... a thrilling adventure story" 4 stars).