The Watermill Theatre on a sunny summer evening is a bucolic scene worthy of a rabbit's most fervent daydream. Richard Adams was born in nearby Wash Common, and the unspoilt chalk downs his characters seek are vividly evoked.
The production is based on Richard Adams' best selling book, skilfully adapted by Rona Munro. Winner of the Carnegie Medal and The Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, it sold in its millions, and in 44 years since publication, has never been out of print. A successful full length animated feature film released in 1978 had many humming Art Garfunkel's hit theme song 'Bright Eyes', even if they were unfamiliar with the story.
I fell into this category last night, but it was clear from the evident appreciation of the audience, that I was the exception.
Director Adam Penfold brought Adams' well loved characters to hopping, twitching life. Their camaraderie, loyalty and courage in adversity were based on Adams' war time experience with the Royal Army Service Corps. Hazel's (James Blackway) natural leadership realised during their life-or-death struggle to reach safety, Bigwig's (Richard James-Neale) courage and principle, and Blackavaar's (Jess Murphy)'s suffering and forebearance was beautifully realised.
Edward Bennett's sinister General Woundwort cast a deep shadow over many lives – both above and below ground in a giant dystopian warren, while Fiver's (Alexander Morris) visions were both terrifying and life-affirming. There is something more after a life of struggle; death can be gentle and heaven a place of cool order and peace.
To realise all this on an intimate stage, with a two tier audience gripped by the story – as Adams' daughters Juliet and Rosamond had been on their storytelling father's school run between Islington and Highgate – was a triumph for designer Richard Kemp and his team' set.
Music, puppetry and keen observation of the natural behaviour of wild rabbits – which Adams attributed to reading works by the naturalist Robert Lockley, and which Penfold clearly respected on stage, brought the heart of the story to life.
Charlotte Bate's free-spirited bird Kehaar was superb, and brought an aerial perspective to the theatre space, elegantly soaring in a swing. Her swashbuckling presence goaded, mocked and inspired the rabbits who nursed her back to health.
The programme is an excellent companion to the show, especially if you are new to the story. It's dark, it's frightening and I saw only one child in the audience last night. It might be helpful to give an outline of the story to reassure before taking small children.