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Muddy must-see: Watership Down, The Watermill, Newbury

The cast of Watership Down - Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull 026 copy
I caught the press performance of Watership Down at the Watermill in Newbury last week, and let me tell you, it is fantastic. I’d been excited about seeing this one and it didn’t disappoint.

Just in case you’re not a child of the Seventies and the original book passed you by, Watership Down is the story of a group of rabbits who go in search of a new home after their warren is destroyed by developers, and the dangers they have to face on their journey. And boy, do rabbits have a lot of dangers to contend with. Forget that bucolic countryside scene you’ve been imagining – it’s a flipping war-zone out there!

LtoR Alexander Morris, Joseph O'Malley, Richard James-Neale, James Backway, Vicki Manderson. Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 210 copy

From the farmer’s gun, to badgers, stoats, foxes, ferocious dogs, and even one another – this was like a high octane action-adventure movie at times where we were gripping our seats and grimacing at each other as the rabbits lurched from one incident to the next! By the time the show was over, I was spent.

Despite remembering the trauma I’d suffered sobbing my way through the book and the animated film (released in 1978, gulp! Do you remember Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel was the theme song? Cue floodgates) I’d made the decision to take the mudlets with me (aged 8 and 9) and my niece (14), then worried constantly that I’d done the wrong thing as the darker elements of the story unfolded.

LtoR Alexander Morris, Vicki Manderson, James Backway, Joseph O'Malley. Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 079 copy

I needn’t have worried though, apart from a handful of occasions which raised eyebrows, it was fine. One of the rabbits, Fiver, has visions and can tell when something dangerous is about to happen and my youngest threw me an anxious look now and again when he was on stage, more because he portrayed his fear so well.

There’s also a pretty scary farmyard dog sculpted out of chicken wire, which I know doesn’t sound particularly knee-knocking, but honestly, being manipulated by two of the actors, with a deep believable growl and glowing eyes, even I sat back a little in my seat and held my youngest’s hand! There are also a few lighthearted references to the male bucks and female doe rabbits, um, doing what rabbits do! I’d say aged 8 is definitely as young as you’d want to go unless you have particularly robust children, both in terms of the emotional content and the length of the show.

LtoR Alexander Morris, James Backway, Joseph O'Malley, Charlotte Bate. Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 128

Adapted by Rona Munro, there is quite a lot of story telling throughout, which I thought they might find boring but they listened intently (even though some of it was probably going over their heads). I think it helped that the characterisation of the individual rabbits is so strong, so they could pick out favourites early on. By the interval they were totally hooked and desperate to know what was going to happen to Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Pipkin and the rest.

The entire cast is incredibly strong and a joy to watch. We particuarly loved Bigwig (Richard James-Neale) who was dynamic and watchable; Kehaar (Charlotte Bate) who was hilarious as a hostile seagull who takes refuge on Watership Down with an injured wing and ends up helping the rabbits; and a commanding and frightening General Woundwort (Edward Bennett) the tyrannical leader of the Efrafa warren. He also plays Holly, captain of the Sandleford warren (some of the actors double up on roles).

Edward Bennett. Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 265 copy

I also liked the low-key look they had gone for with costumes – no rabbit onesies in sight, just refugee-esque old clothes in brown, grey and muted tones, and woolly hats or caps with ears. Not too heavy on the twitchy-nosed rabbit actions either. A few short sharp movements to imply ‘rabbit’ rather than going too method (Daniel Day-Lewis would have spent six weeks living down a burrow). Although there were a lot of lettuces and carrots consumed.

The cast of Watership Down - Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 017 copy

There’s plenty of exciting action, some charming folk songs and joyful jigs (the cast play all their own instruments and sing brilliantly) and a particularly funny one about lettuce, which the children loved.

There was also something special knowing that author Richard Adams, now 96 (who was born in Wash Common near Newbury) had apparently made one of the matinee performances earlier that week. When writing Watership Down (his first book) he drew heavily on his childhood memories of places he explored growing up near the Berkshire-Hampshire border. The theatre is just a few miles north of Sandleford Common where the story begins, and not far from the real Watership Down, a hill, popular with walkers and cyclists in nearby Hampshire.

The theatre itself – all rustic dark wood, snug and cosy – is already quite burrow-like, so you feel you’re halfway there when you take your seats. A simple stage with a series of wooden ledges and ladders and there you have it. You’re in a cramped warren, totally believing there are rabbits all around you.

LtoR from back Scarlet Wilderink, Charlotte Bate, Jess Murphy. Watership Down. Photo Philip Tull. 052 copy

Watership Down actually pulls you in emotionally as if you’re watching a movie. If you want a really entertaining evening, seeing something unique, thought provoking and a beautiful adaptation of the story with humour, action and a lot of joy, then I’d totally utterly recommend this. Hop to it!

Watership Down, The Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until Saturday 23 July. Book tickets online or contact the Box Office: 01635 46044.


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