Trotting up the steps of the Lyric, queuing to collect tickets, sitting in the toilet stall next to mine: there are children, everywhere, chanting, “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.” I am silently joining in, the words to Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s 1989 book as ready to bubble up to the surface of my brain as they were when I was 4. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has become a bit like The Beatles in that it feels like we all come out of the womb knowing the words. But the reality is much better: only endless bedtime stories and countless requests to “read it again!”, memories of reciting the verse on long car journeys or going on a family bear hunt of your own, could create such an enthusiastically vocal audience. So, basically, the pressure is on to successfully transfer this most beloved book to the stage. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt more than delivers.
Working with a narrative the audience already knows by heart, Sally Cookson’s production adds a new layer: how the story will be told. The family’s adventure is constructed with the creativity and imagination of child’s play, and props and objects that could be found in a classroom or kitchen cupboard, requiring us to join in the game and suspend our disbelief. We may know that Dad (Thos Wainwright), Girl (Rebecca Newman), Boy (Joey Hickman) and Baby (a puppet made by Marc Parrett) are going to come to a river – a deep, cold river that they can’t go over, nor under – but how will they go through it? It’s almost as thrilling as the search for a bear; who would expect the cast to splash and splosh in real water, dancing with filled buckets on their feet, and squirting supersoakers out into the auditorium (we really are, all, going on this bear hunt)? The squelching, squerching mud is thick, oozing brown paint smeared on easels and faces; the forest constructed from stacked cardboard boxes; the snow a simple white sheet.
The book’s rhythmic text is told largely through music and song: a smooth jazz number perfectly captures the beautiful day, a bout of yodeling somehow sums up the squelchy mud. The score is accompanied by musician Buddy the dog (Benjamin Hills, who also composed it), a quietly hilarious presence who is firmly told to ‘Sit!” back with his instruments whenever his canine exploits (like rolling around in bear poo) become too much.
Safely home with the door firmly shut and everyone snuggled in bed, Dad tells his family, “We’ll play again tomorrow”. I’m tempted to join them.
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