Where Is Peter Rabbit? (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)

Where Is Peter Rabbit? (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, until April 28th)

More than 100 years since Beatrix Potter first told the tale of Peter Rabbit in book form the enchanting stories still have mass appeal with toys, ballet, animation and more keeping the characters alive.

Now, an extraordinary retelling of some of the author’s memorable tales is enough to make audiences gasp with admiration thanks to the combination of delightful puppetry, memorable songs (with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn and music by Steven Edis), dance, a fantastic set and the highest quality production values.

It may be only 60 minutes long but Where Is Peter Rabbit? is a lot more than one of those charming touring shows based on children’s books to engage young audiences. It is a full-blown production for all ages, and one good enough to make other West End musical blockbusters pack up their sets and go home. It has everything – from true family-friendly storytelling  and hummable tunes to comic and tragic drama, and there’s even a touch of the absurd in an hilarious scene where five Mr McGregors come on to sing about favourite vegetables.

This show is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until the end of April with up to three performances during the day, though it is in real danger of outclassing its big sister Only Fools and Horses which takes the stage in the evenings and occasional matinees.

Devised by Roger Glossop this is a show that could unashamedly hang a banner outside the theatre with the statement, “You know this is one of the best things you’re going to see in the West End, right?” Glossop is the co-designer of The World of Beatrix Potter attraction in the Lake District (and a director of the Old Laundry Theatre on the same site, where this show premiered three years ago on the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth) so you know everything about it is going to be meticulous and honest to the original stories and appearance.

Indeed Glossop has designed an unforgettable and beautiful set based on the watercolours for The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, which frames the action impeccably. It is as though the audience were being invited to walk into the pages of those little Beatrix Potter books and become a part of the elegant illustrations

There’s an opportunity to meet Peter Rabbit (or even have a hug!) before entering  the theatre, though this caused an early cry from one young audience member to Beatrix Potter’s question, “where IS Peter Rabbit?” of “He’s outside!”

Children may well be the target audience, but it’s not only the young faces that are transfixed. Adults wallow in the nostalgia of old storybook friends being brought to splendidly to life before their eyes.

Five of Potter’s stories are recreated here: Mr Jeremy Fisher, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Tod, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Peter Rabbit. They are cleverly brought together by the device of Beatrix Potter (a prim but twinkling Joanna Brown) mislaying one of her drawings of Peter Rabbit and enlisting the help of the nice-but-dim Jemima Puddle-Duck (a puppet brought to life with charisma and character by Grace Osborn) to find him.

Each of the puppets is magnificently realised, looking for all the world as though they have just wandered off the pages of the books, and along the way we meet not just the title characters but also the likes of Benjamin Bunny, Lucie, Tommy Brock, Rebecca Puddle-Duck, Kep the collie and a fearsome trout. In most cases the puppets are attached to the actor manipulating them so their movements are as one and it is full credit to the five performers playing all the animal roles that each character has such individuality and believability.

Charlotte Harrington is the naughty Peter Rabbit and Lucie, who loses her pocket handkerchiefs, with Samuel Knight dashing around as Jeremy Fisher and a wicked Tommy Brock.

It is Matthew Whitby who deservedly attracts the best responses both as a fearsome Mr McGregor (who keeps singing about putting rabbits in pies) and the disagreeable Mr Tod, the sly fox. If there were true justice in the world of theatre he would be winning a best supporting actor Olivier next year.

The stories chosen are rich and varied with stings in the tale not underplayed, but the performers always have a glint in the eye or a sly smile to avoid things becoming too terrifying for the tinies. Sheila Carter’s direction is vibrant, crowd-pleasing and precise.

The music by Steven Edis, with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, could easily fit into and support a large scale musical, with soaring ballads and showstoppers every few minutes.You’ll never look at a radish again without a song welling up in your mind!

As if everything else wasn’t sufficiently five star, there’s recorded narration from two of the best storytellers around: Miriam Margolyes recounts the tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck and Griff Rhys Jones narrates the tales of Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher, both making full use of a velvety vocal cheekiness.

Where Is Peter Rabbit? has been brought to the West End as an Easter holiday entertainment but it has strength, pulling power and charm enough to carry on beyond its month-long tenure at the Haymarket. It’s a magical musical adventure that ensures some of literature’s most endearing creations have colourful life over a century later.

David Guest

Image: Steve Barber

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub