Review: Watership Down @ Watermill, Newbury

Giles Woodforde enjoys a production of a classic Downland tale in the perfect setting

Our new neighbours have installed a pair of pet rabbits, and they plainly enjoy a very cushy life compared with their cousins out in the wild.

That’s very apparent from Rona Munro’s stage adaptation of Richard Adams’s classic novel Watership Down. Given a new production by the Watermill, this is a highly physical tale of life in the raw. Quite apart from the risks presented by natural predators like foxes and stoats, Adams’s rabbits are threatened by a new housing development: “superb homes set in six acres” proclaims a large notice placed immediately above their warren.

But General Woundwort (Edward Bennett) is having none of it. Displaying an isolationist, ruthless fervour worthy of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, all suggestions that a new warren should be founded are resisted: “I will take your whiskers,” he sneers when a quivering rabbit seeks permission to move elsewhere. You are left in no doubt that disobedience would result in the removal of a great deal more than whiskers. Suggestions from rabbit spokesman Bigwig (Richard James-Neale) that the warren is becoming overcrowded result in a violent confrontation.

Comic relief is supplied by seagull Kehaar – Charlotte Bate, in a memorable cameo performance. At first appearing to be a femme fatale spy left over from the Cold War (even squawking the classic line: “I keel you”), Kehaar ends up befriending the rabbits.

The Watermill is the ideal place to stage Watership Down. According to a map in the programme, Adams set his book nearby (close to Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey), and Richard Kent’s atmospheric set design melds seamlessly into the rough-hewn Watermill auditorium: you can almost smell the underground damp. There may be no big production budget, but director Adam Penfold conjures up a plethora of bunny ears, and a feeling that the warren is absolutely seething with rabbits, even though the cast is only nine-strong.

Above all, the show is put over with great zest, and without any hint of cuddly sentimentality. It’s perhaps a bit scary for the very young, but otherwise this is an engrossing piece of storytelling. Continues until 23 July.

Giles Woodforde