Michael Rosen’s We're Going on a Bear Hunt has been gleefully delighting young children for more than 25 years. The story of two kids (one of each) and their dad with baby on his back going off on a jaunty ramble to look for bears, is gloriously simple. They prowl through tall grass (‘swishy swashy’), they wade through mud (‘squelch squerch’) and they ‘stumble trip’ through a forest before finding the bear’s cave.
The percussive, joyful repetitions and gorgeous words to roll your tongue around, are brought to life with the beautifully colourful and evocative illustrations by Helen Oxenbury. This really fabulous combination of story, rhyme, rhythm and image has led to this book selling millions.
When turning this book into a live performance, one of the main challenges must be: how to extend a book that takes five minutes or so to read aloud, into an hour-ish-long production? The challenge is met but not entirely conquered in director Sally Cookson’s lively and suitably silly adaptation.
The four actors (the one not playing dad or one of the kids plays the part of the family’s dog and a lot of musical instruments) engage the audience right from the off. Wandering through the auditorium asking the children if they know what a bear looks like, they shout the answers across to each other and studiously write them down. The children in the audience just can’t help joining in with the familiar refrains, when they come, but there’s necessarily a lot of filler and consequently a bit of a wait between the good bits.
The bits in between are filled, in true children’s theatre fashion, with a lot of slapstick. There’s oozy mud in basins that is smeared onto mounted sheets of paper before the scene descends into the inevitable mud-fight. The river is depicted with blue buckets full of water but moves fairly swiftly to the audience being drenched with water-guns as the kids in the show run up and down the stalls firing at everyone within distance. People in the Circle be warned – those guns have quite a reach!
The stage show doesn’t have the same impact as the book, as some of the rhythmic vitality and fun is lost through the elongation and stretching out of these originally dynamic short verses. The show is, however, nevertheless producing laughter and engagement from children as young as 18 months. It may not be quite the same but the good bits are all still in there and there’s a lot of skill, heart and energy in this entertaining production.
Performed Fri 20 & Sat 21 January