Review by Flossie Waite
Presented by Little Angel Theatre
Thursday 14th April 2016 – Sunday 26th June 2016
For ages 2-7
Writer Michael Rosen puts the huge success of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt down to it doing “that special thing that picture books can do – which is to narrate different stories in print and in pictures.” The text recites the repetitive refrains of a traditional North American campfire song, and the images depict a British family day out: the interesting bit is the gap between the two. Who are the family? What is real, and what is fantasy? The children claim they’re not frightened, but do their faces look sure?… And though they run from the bear, he looks more sad than scary… Little Angel’s production explores this space, in an immensely imaginative production that isn’t just a version of the book, but an extended edition of the story.
There can be only a handful of books that families across the nation read aloud almost identically – the inherent rhythm of the words and phrases makes it impossible not to chant them in a certain way. Rhythm and musicality are therefore central to the play from the very beginning. The performers skip-march through the audience and onto the stage, singing those beloved lines – We’re going on a bear hunt, We’re going to catch a big one, What a beautiful day! We’re not scared! – their feet tapping out the beat as they go. From there, singer-songwriter Barb Jungr takes over, with a lush soundtrack of close harmonies and acoustic guitar that set the atmosphere and narrate each scene, with every song led by words from the original text.
Sound is an essential part of the sensory book: the swish-swash of the grass, the splish-splash of the river, the squelch-squerch of the mud. The production uses this to great effect, creating noises that are both descriptive and humorous. The family’s dog, for instance, is terrified of a couple of ducks who stalk him through the water quacking the Jaws theme tune, and their jubilant quacks at his departure clearly represent enthusiastic laughter – this is quite a sophisticated aural gag that had the young audience in hysterics. At another point, the littlest member of the family – a toddler called Bertie – is asked what sound a bear makes. As he cycles through possible answers – miaow, cockadoodledoo etc – the audience giggle at his mistakes, though it is Bertie who ultimately gets the last laugh, with a final sound-based joke.
Though the action follows the whole family, it seems to zero in on Bertie slightly more. As the character perhaps closest to the audience’s age, he is a protagonist of sorts – despite being so young, in many ways he seems the most fearless and independent, a joy for all the young people watching. His particular experience of the adventure captures the blurry line between reality and fantasy that is present in the book. We see the things he does when the rest of the family aren’t there – jumping into the lake for a quick bit of backstroke for instance – never quite sure whether this is within the realms of possibility, or a glimpse into his imagination.
The dramatic adaptation not only extends the story, but amplifies it. As the hunters near their prey, we’re not just watching Bertie and his family – we are one of them. The theatre becomes the dark cave, with torches nervously flashing around in search of the bear. When the children are scared, they go into the audience to find a comforting hand to hold. We feel their fear as the bear chases them back to their house, by way of the auditorium.
The bear’s sorrowful stance at the book’s end hints at possible motives behind his pursuit of the family, and the show expands this potential narrative, giving the bear a bit of backstory. Any additional material like this feels completely in keeping with the picturebook, as if the book includes selected highlights of their day, whereas the play is able to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at everything that happened. The richness of this adaptation demonstrates why so many children and families love the book so much – it is deceptively simple, with silent depths that come into play with each reading. Little Angel’s production exposes the genius at work in the picturebook, and matches it.
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