I Want My Hat Back at the National – writer Joel Horwood on hats, children, and why he is secretly a rabbit

I Want My Hat Back in Rehearsals Photo Credit: Richard Davenport. richard@rwdavenport.co.uk. 07545642134

Writer Joel Horwood chats to director Wils Wilson during rehearsals for I Want My Hat Back at the National Theatre. Picture: Richard Davenport

JOEL HORWOOD made his mark as a writer back in 2005 with a madcap musical, Mikey the Pikey. Now an associate artist at the Lyric Hammersmith, his portfolio spans the Royal Court, Bristol Old Vic, the BBC, the Almeida, the Old Vic, and, most recently, the National Theatre. It is for the National that Horwood has written the book and lyrics, to accompany composer Arthur Darvill’s music, for the musical adaptation of Jon Klassen’s bestselling children’s book I Want My Hat Back – the story of a Bear’s quest to find his hat, and the trials of Rabbit, who cannot bring himself to return it.

I Want My Hat Back continues at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre, London until 2 January 2016.

In conversation with Aura Simon

SPOILER ALERT: Lots of comments about what happens in the book and stage adaptation below!!

What first drew you to this book as a project? 

So, Arthur [Darvill, composer of the show] bought me the book as a 32nd birthday gift, and as part of my present, he wanted to read it out with his wife. So he and his wife put on an impromptu performance at my birthday party which was really fun, and just in the middle of that, I started saying – actually maybe there’s something in this! So Arthur found a book that sounded really enjoyable and we almost immediately started adapting it without knowing.

So it all came quite naturally then?

It did, and then what’s brilliant was when we first talked to the National about it, the deputy artistic director Ben Power was just over-awed with excitement. He’s a new dad and the book turned out to be of his favourites! So we were all lucky enough to share a great love for the book.

Having been to see the show, part of the great joy for me as an adult was seeing the children’s uninhibited reactions to it. How do you find writing for children as opposed to an adult audience?

Well, I definitely enjoyed the same thing. I love how vocal they are and how much they get involved in the show. I wrote panto for the Lyric Hammersmith for a few years, which was really good fun, and I always felt like my favourite bits of writing those were the moments when the kids were so frustrated with the actors not looking behind them.

So the differences were that I knew I could use that frustration to write the rabbit into various scenes that he wasn’t in in the book, so that he was kind of heightened and built up – that was really enjoyable. And then, I think it [writing for children] just always makes me feel really disciplined about clarity, trying to be really clear with the narrative of the story, because that’s the thing that really engages them, and that’s the part that’s hardest.

I Want My Hat Back at The National Theatre Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport 2015, Richard@rwdavenport.co.uk, 07545642134

Steven Webb in I Want My Hat Back at the National Theatre. Picture: Richard Davenport

It is quite a different book/show from those you’d normally find for children – it’s full of deadpan humour and doesn’t pull its punches – especially in the case of poor Rabbit! How did you find it, striking a balance between the childish joy of it all and the slightly darker side of things?

I love that in the books, because it’s a massive surprise, and I love the way it’s handled. You turn a page and are left wondering what’s happened – until the bear lies that he’d never eat the rabbit. There must be great conversations happening between parents and kids, where they talk about lying and death and all the massive universal questions.

I just thought: what a great idea for a musical! So then we started thinking about how we would adapt the book for the stage. We investigated the kind of lights down/lights up version, which was deeply boring because you pitch the whole thing towards this big showdown, and then you kind of rob the kids of it. So then we thought: let’s go with it and see what happens.

And you really do!

We tried it out with some young people at our workshop (which the National graciously supported) and the kids were just delighted, they loved it, and the teachers were completely shocked. As soon as we did it I suddenly remembered all of those Roald Dahl books, they were so dark! And I thought, yeah, I loved that as a kid, there’s something really kind of primal and ugly and great fun about doing things you feel you’re not allowed to do.

Then the main thing we all felt was that we couldn’t end it there – Rabbit’s dead, Happy Christmas! So then we thought, well, if we want to start having that conversation with children that we imagine the parents might have, we would sustain the moment afterwards. Then the kids are wondering why the play is continuing, until we start to find a place where the bear feels guilty. I hope that kids start to relate to that in terms of any moment where they’ve acted out of those huge emotions you feel as a kid.

I felt like we could add a kind of coda in which we hopefully get somewhere a bit more profound. We found the dark moments completely alluring in that book, and really wanted to deliver those, but we felt like we absolutely had to say why within the production.

Where did you draw inspiration for your animal characters? Was it purely from the book or was it from real life too? 

I’d love to say we all went to a forest for a week and did method acting, but we actually just wanted to kind of stick to the book and really use those characters. I feel like the way that Jon Klassen draws is so evocative of the characters. He’s drawn such a standoffish Stag that I knew those characters had to be teenagers. He’s drawn the frog like he’s stood at a bar so we thought: how do we make the frogs plural, make them a cohort, a slightly exclusive affair? We really took all of our inspiration from Jon Klassen, we were led by his sense of humour and the vibrancy of the characters he’d already created, he’s brilliant. Like the tortoise, that focus, he’s just really trying to climb the rock and doesn’t notice anything else.

OnSaleAssets_IWantMyHatBack 1024 x 576 px (just image)I know of all the characters, I’d definitely be the Bear. I’m forever losing things in plain sight and panicking about it. How about you, which character do you most relate to?

I hate to paint myself in a bad light, but I’m probably the Rabbit. He’s coming home with his bag of carrots after a day’s shopping, and finds something that’s exciting and changes his life. He becomes completely obsessive about it, and then his demise is that he just won’t let it go, which is how I feel about my career. I think I feel like an obsessive that’s found something they love doing, and doesn’t really want to be killed for it!

I hope not! What made you want to become a writer in the first place?

So, Rabbit with the bag of carrots would have been me at university. I went to do English Literature which I guess is the clue, but I was quite bored, and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’d done quite a bit of travelling, which was great fun, but then I had an idea to write a wacky musical and put some friends in it. It went really well, but the thing that got me started with writing was that feeling of getting a group of people together, and all of you being silly and risking things and being vulnerable onstage, in order to get across an idea or just elicit a laugh. I think it was that sense of community that set me alight, and then I thought, right, I will be actively unemployable as anything except a writer until it starts to work.

How has it been working with Arthur? Did you work separately or was it more of a combined process?

We worked on various projects together in different ways, and this one was probably one where we actually spent almost all of the writing time together. The National locked us in a room really, and we sat there together trying to work out what kind of musical world we wanted the songs to have – we worked out quite early on what music we were both fans of. [Speaking of the Snake’s solo number in the show]) That was Arthur going: “Yeah, snakes are from Brazil aren’t they?”

Of course!

So it led to a flamenco song, which is, uh, I don’t know how Brazilian that is actually, thanks Arthur! We thought that for fun, we’d go with our gut instinct, rather than be too coherently from one place or one environment, trying to write with joy and with a strong sense of fun. And that meant I could write lyrics that were just repeating the word ‘hat’.

So, back in the big wide world, what shows have caught your eye lately?

This is actually ages ago and so different, but I went to see The Events at the Young Vic, I just thought it was so moving. They had these choirs from around England and I just thought it was one of the most beautiful pieces of work I’d seen, because it was so completely about how communities can respond to acts of terror and it seemed so apt, particularly in the wake of Paris, even though I saw it a while ago. Also, Hamlet at the Barbican was great, well done Benedict, brilliant stuff.

And what’s next for you?

I’m really enjoying working on completely different things, I’m dramaturg on a Simon Stephens play from 2001 which is going on at the Lyric Hammersmith. It’s called Herons, it was a response to the Jamie Bulger murder case in 1993. I edit the start of the play and I’m working with the director to try and create a few more images to tell the story rather than using just words and language.

Last question, and it’s my favourite one – what is your favourite kind of hat?

What a great question! It’s definitely a bobble hat.

Why is that? I only ask because I have a friend who’s got the same fascination. He can’t keep his hands off them. 

Oh gosh, what would Freud say? My fascination is that I think it doesn’t matter how much they clash colour-wise, they go with everything.

They do, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

No one would dare.


* I Want My Hat Back continues at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre, London until 2 January 2016.

* Joel Horwood is a writer, dramaturg and director, who is part of the Secret Theatre ensemble. Theatre includes: Mikey the PikeyFoodIs Everyone OK?I Caught Crabs in WalberswickThe Count of Monte CristoI ♥ PeterboroughThe Planet and StuffThe Little MermaidA Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts.

Readers may also be interested in:

I Want My Hat Back – National Theatre – Review


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