Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The classic story of a boy who loved a toy so much that he became real is brought vividly and loving to the stage by Backhand Theatre.
The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic of children’s literature known more to American children than in Europe. Brought successfully into audio format by pianist George Winston and narrated by Meryl Streep, it has become better known over here in recent years. Backhand bring a faithful interpretation to the stage with some authentic traditional style storytelling, some lovely puppets and puppetry, and thankfully almost no unnecessary modern references
The cast of the Velveteen Rabbit engage with us from the start. Raggy the rag doll greets us. Waiting for the other toys to appear, she tells us a story, fairly faithful to the original, of the Velveteen Rabbit.
Puppetry lies at the core of this staging and the puppetry is simple and done with great care. The Velveteen Rabbit is a story set mostly in the nursery, and it poses questions that will be greeted philosophically by adults, but magically by children. What is it to be real? THAT is the question.
There are many delightful characters in the story, portrayed well by the talented young cast. The Skin Horse is set just right for a children’s show. The costumes, puppetry and gentle music create a dreamy bedtime story feel that makes this a treat to watch as story-theatre.
Lighting is well used as we change from day to night, from bedroom to garden. The storyteller carries the narrative well, sharing it with the cast who play the toys, Nanna and the boy with commitment and poise. Only occasionally it the storytelling a little hesitant, falling into naturalism.
"When you are real, you don’t mind being hurt." This is a story filled with archetypes and symbols and this production treats them with loving respect. Ony once is the magic broken when Nanna steps into the audience out of the evocative story and addresses the audience children as "you guys". It’s a pity as we watch, not as "guys" but as children lost in a timeless tale.
We confer reality in those things we name as real, even if it has a sawdust heart. And there are deeper, more fundamental levels of reality. That’s the genius at the heart of this classic of literature and it lies successfully at the heart of Backhand’s successful rendition. The ingredients: simple puppets handled with well crafted gesturing, never over-fussy. No compromes to modern TV imagery or taking to child audiences as adults. Nicely done lighting, music that serves the piece and evokes the ethereal feel of the story. And a gesture of wanting the story to come across, of wanting people to listen to it and enjoy it, and to learn from it.
In theatre, shabbiness does matter, but there’s nothing shabby here. They’ve really captured believability in the rabbit puppets for the audience. And the skin horse is wonderfully done!
As in the book, the ending is moving and so is this theatre version. It brought a tear to my eye. I’m 45 and want to see it again.