The Velveteen Rabbit

Margery Williams
Unicorn Theatre
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Anglo-American author Margery Williams's first American book The Velveteen Rabbit, the original 1922 edition illustrated by William Nicholson, became a children’s classic, especially in America. US teachers still place it in their top 100 books for children.

It is no surprise that, in a book from that era, the little boy at its centre is very posh and this staging doesn’t change that, though here he is British and black middle class. His home has grand curtains around the window and he has a nanny and lots of toys. There is a beautiful, big rocking horse, a person-size castle with lots of wooden toy soldiers, a railway train and big cuddly toys and wind-ups, but it stays true to period. There isn’t the whiff of a computer game or anything like one.

There is a delightful and original opening as first one, then a second and a third suited and bowler-hatter businessman walks on to the stage and appraises the place. Clever timing makes what little they do, not much more than a glance here and a glance there, very funny and captures a willing young audience of primary school children immediately.

One of them (Jason Carr) walks off to the piano—he will provide the production’s music—one (Syrus Lowe) sheds his jacket and dons a big cap, losing forty years in a moment to become The Boy, while the third (Paul Lloyd) puts down his black briefcase and starts on the story.

This adaptation takes the text and narrates it, with dialogue as in the original. Lloyd’s warm, fruity tones make him an excellent narrator, always keeping contact with his audience when he is not momentarily becoming a character—usually the white-pinafored Nanny.

“There was once,” he tells us, “a velveteen rabbit, “and in the beginning he was really splendid” —and out of the big, white Christmas stocking hanging at the rear of the stage Christian Roe’s rabbit appears, miming his whiskers and his long, pink-lined ears as the narration describes them.

There is no fake fur or cotton wool tail, just the actor in a velvet corduroy jacket. From now on he is the Velveteen Rabbit whether lying lifeless on the ground or animated by his contact with the Boy, that’s energy-charged Syrus Lowe who is immediately sharing the fun he’s having with the audience.

An aging toy horse (Lloyd) explains Toyland’s snobby class system to Rabbit. “What is real?” Rabbit asks. “Is it things that buzz inside and have stick out handles?” The horse explains that it takes a very long time before a toy begins to be real, “generally by the time you are real most of your hair has rubbed off and your eyes drop out! The boy’s uncle made me real—years ago.”

Becoming real takes lots of play and lots of affection and that’s what the Boy and the Rabbit engage in together. They set off to sea, where it blows up a great storm, ride a counterpane elephant, having a pillow fight that turns into a snowfall storm—their imaginary adventures all shared with the audience.

When Nanny throws Rabbit into one toy box and he pops up from another, the young audience does not need prompting to be shouting “behind you”. Later, when Rabbit is wondering whether he is real, they spontaneously call out, “You’re real!” for this is a production that totally engages them. Indeed, one of its delights for an adult is being able to share the pleasure of the captivated primary school audience at which it is targeted. They loved it.

Purni Morell’s direction keeps things bubbling and James Button’s colourful design sparks off the imagination. Add Jason Carr’s music, atmospheric lighting, some choreographic input from Wilkie Branson and three actors with plenty of personality and this is a blend that really delivers.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton