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I Want My Hat Back review at the National Theatre, London – ‘engages every child in the room’

Steven Webb in I Want My Hat Back at the National Theatre's Temporary Theatre, London. Photo: Richard Davenport

It’s tuneful. It’s colourful. It’s imaginative. It’s moral. And it engages every child in the room. You really can’t ask much more from a children’s show. Bear (Marek Larwood), who grunts and gestures in true ursine fashion, loses his pointy red hat in the forest. The thief is an amoral rabbit played by the immensely talented Steven Webb who manages the funniest walk since John Cleese and has enough insouciant charisma to bring down the whole forest. Thereafter, it’s a hat-finding quest story, involving the accomplished main ensemble of three playing lots of delightful creatures including frogs, a cat, caterpillar and more. None of them has seen the hat, of course.

It’s too clever for an unequivocally happy ending, though. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but suffice it to say there’s a splendid ascension into lapine heaven complete with a fine funeral anthem. Arthur Darvill’s  sparky music, which ranges through dozens of styles including jazz singing, tango, folk and more,  comes mostly from three actor-musicians dressed as stags (complete with antlers) on a high stage above the action. The instrumentation, especially Richie Hart on the tuba, is often witty and the all the music is catchy.

The National Theatre’s high production values are evident. It’s fairly unusual these days to see anything for preschoolers that employs a cast of eight – far fewer is more usual. The set is quite elaborate, with lots of plants, cosy furniture, wallpaper, detailed props etc, even in the passages into the Temporary Space. And the metamorphosis of Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s squat caterpillar into a magnificent golden butterfly is really special. Arguably, children’s theatre is the most important part of the whole industry, so it’s good to see it being invested in properly.

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Strong, imaginative theatre for over-threes, with sparky music and high production values