The Velveteen Rabbit

Margery Williams
Unicorn Theatre
Unicorn Theatre

Christian Roe as Rabbit, Stephen Kennedy as Narrator Credit: Manuel Harlan
Ashley Byam, Christian Roe as Rabbit, Stephen Kennedy Credit: Manuel Harlan
Christian Roe as Rabbit Credit: Manuel Harlan

Tension hangs in the air as a man in a dark suit and briefcase silently walks onto the stage. He waits, surveying the view and is eventually joined by three more men who similarly compose themselves. An auditorium full of children are transfixed on this line of suits and briefcases, all just waiting for something to happen.

In a world dominated by noise and spectacle, the decision to start a children’s show in complete silence is a brave one but one that sets the tone for the rest of this piece. The audience are drawn into the world of The Velveteen Rabbit; it does not compete for their attention.

The story is a simple one: when a boy is given a velveteen rabbit as a Christmas present, he is initially more excited by his other flashy, more modern presents. The rabbit sits alone in the nursery, ignored by the other toys and unnoticed by the boy. However, thanks to a bedtime mix-up, he grows to love the rabbit who becomes his constant companion, present for all of his imaginative adventures and bedtime cuddles.

An old toy once told the rabbit that when you are loved enough you become real and when the rabbit becomes real to the boy his world changes forever.

Of the four men present at the beginning of the play, only two are actors in the story—one a narrator (Steven Kennedy) and one the boy (Ashley Byam). The other two are just as crucial to the piece, however: one a composer (Jason Carr) who seats himself at the piano at the side of the stage and one a BSL interpreter (Peter Abraham) who makes his home the other side of the stage.

Live music and dialogue support the story but it is really driven by Wilkie Branson’s choreography that charts the evolving relationship of the rabbit and boy. The night-time scenes in which the boy tosses and turns inadvertently throwing the rabbit around the bed are some of the funniest and their sequence of daring adventures provides genuine tension.

As the rabbit becomes more and more loved, his coat becomes shabbier and shabbier with Roe literally changing jackets, this simple technique implying the passing of time and his status as a favoured toy.

Keen on metaphor, the show trusts its audience to engage their imaginations and, although the pace, almost stately at times, focuses on the wonder of play, there is a tinge of melancholy that most grown-ups will connect with.

It may seem odd to describe a male actor playing a toy rabbit as understated, but Christian Roe’s delightful performance as The Velveteen Rabbit is just that. In a brown suit and velvet blazer, he begins as a shy but enquiring rabbit and evolves into quite an adventurer. Without face paint or rabbit ears, his physicality takes precedence and means that every quirk of the eyebrow counts. His quiet delivery appropriate for an "old fashioned sawdust-stuffed toy."

Ashley Byam’s sweet boy captures a sense of innocence and he and Roe work excellently together, the boy and rabbit absolutely synchronised.

Overseeing the unfolding tale as a narrator but also with stints as Nanny, a doctor and a real rabbit, Steven Kennedy is engaging but matter-of-fact, a narrator without artifice, milking the moment he puts an apron and mop cap on over his suit. His soothing tone ensures a comforting environment and he addresses the audience seriously but with a twinkle in his eye.

There is a slight anticlimax towards the end of the piece and, in contrast with the rest of the script, the last few minutes feel rushed, however this did not seem to bother the mesmerised children around me.

With thoughtful staging, effective choreography and heartfelt storytelling, The Velveteen Rabbit is a charming piece of theatre that succeeds in creating a magical world without ever patronising its young audience.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston

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