In case you didn’t know, Canadian illustrator Jon Klassen’s ‘I Want My Hat Back’ is the single greatest kids’ picture book of all time, a laconic 32-page masterpiece that follows a massive, po-faced bear as he (or indeed, she) embarks upon a quest to find his (or her) red party hat, which has been nicked by another, much smaller woodland creature.
Its charms lie in Klassen’s beautifully deadpan illustrations and the hysterically brutal ending, which is veiled in just enough subtext to not upset the very young.
A literal stage adaptation is surely out of the question: there’s only about two minutes of dialogue, and the animals’ glazed, unshifting expressions are surely beyond the ken of human actors.
As it is, Joel Horwood’s version for over-threes – with music by Arthur Darvill – attempts to stay true to the spirit of the book while emphatically doing its own thing. The vibe of Wils Wilson’s production is kind of, er, I dunno, Vic and Bob directing an IKEA commercial: everyone is decked out in retro knitwear, a band with bowl haircuts and reindeer deely boppers tinkles out easy listening music, there is a distinct air of Scandinavian kitsch; a series of almost aggressively meaningless songs that seems deliberately calculated to not advance the story. The actors playing the oddball animals do a fine job, notably Steven Webb as the selfish but hardly monstrous Rabbit, who doesn’t understand the terrible forces he has unleashed when he takes the abandoned hat.
But the star is Marek Larwood’s Bear. Clad in fur coat and a Led Zep T-shirt, he brings a wonderfully weird energy to play: he’s a sort of borderline incoherent savant, but he also manages to keep the show on the road while an audience full of incensed five-year-olds are screaming affirmation of Rabbit’s guilt about half an hour before Bear is meant to discover it.
The big question hovering over this adaptation is what to do about the end. Horwood sort of smartly fudges it by adhering to the book’s macabre end, then tacking on a sort of redemptive final chapter. It’s probably for the best: the audience were more delighted than disturbed, which is what you want from a Christmas kids’ show, I suppose.
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