Kenneth Grahame’s famous book for children, The Wind In The Willows, has been adapted repeatedly for radio, television, the stage and film. Walt Disney, A.A. Milne, Terry Jones the Royal Opera House and Alan Bennett have all had a go to the point where it is hard to see what else can possibly be drawn out of it. Nevertheless a few years ago the musical team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe composed a full scale family musical in collaboration with Julian Fellowes; this team had already had successes with Mary Poppins and a revamped Half A Sixpence.
Interestingly all three musicals are firmly set in the Edwardian world, an era, of course, in which Fellowes has particularly specialised with Downton Abbey. And this is entirely appropriate for whatever else the story is, and there have been many many theories, it is certainly about the class system and how authority is far too often invested in upper crust nincompoops like Toad who, with an orotund turn of phrase and a disregard for anyone but themselves, jump from one project to another with the attention span of a gadfly …. hang on; this is going to turn political in a minute, so best move on. The problem is that for all his faults it is Toad who commands attention and the other bucolic scenes seem to be mere fillers while we wait for the green menace to return. As with so may other adaptations the subplots about Rat’s voyages and the encounter with Pan are ditched in favour of the more pantomimic and farcical elements – well, it is principally for the kids. The problem is that it all seems a bit safe robbing the story of real drama.
However, there is no denying the visual qualities of the show. The costuming is clever and Peter McKintosh’s technicolour set is a delight which evokes the various locations of the original. The show is, as ever reliant on being able to produce a string of transport options (boats, cars, a train, a barge, a caravan) and these are effectively if economically done. Rachel Kavanaugh has a good track record in directing musicals and does a generally good job with this though I never really felt it took flight for long enough to sustain interest; perhaps that would not be the case if you were coming to the story for the first time, though.
Stiles/Drew/Fellowes are not above interpolating their own little extras and these I did find helped me to refocus. They mark the passing of the seasons and the various scene changes with some charming songs sung by swallows, mice, etc. The best of these is the Flanders and Swann influenced Hedgehog’s Nightmare where a family of four of the creatures highlight the problems of crossing a busy road (the line: “We’ll show that we’ve got guts “ is particularly pleasing) Although none of this has anything to do with the book it is agreeably diverting. Less successful, I feel, are the attempts to redress the inherent gender imbalance of the original where the female characters are practically non-existent. The solution is to make the horse into a mare and beef up the roles of Otter and son Portly by redefining them as Mrs Otter (who seems to have swum all the way from the north east) and daughter Portia who is kidnapped by the weasels. This really doesn’t work and comes across as a bolt on to avoid criticism and as the horse does all the hard work, Portia is a giddy young thing who won’t listen to common sense warnings and Mrs Otter has to rely on the males to effect her daughter’s rescue it is hardly doing anyone a favour.
The main narrative, however, includes all the expected key elements with Rufus Hound bright green and bumptious as an irrepressible Toad. He chooses to aim squarely at the pantomime crowd (at one point he dons the costume of a dame) and just stops short of encouraging audience participation. He’s not quite as good as I remember Griff Rhys Jones being in the National Theatre/Alan Bennett version but he certainly can’t be faulted for enthusiasm. I liked Simon Lipkin’s interpretation of Rat with a neat line in comic asides masking a deep seated fear of change. Craig Mather captured Mole’s blend of innocence and “little man” courage and Gary Wilmot (strange to think he’s a stage veteran these days) lent Badger an appropriate degree of gravitas. As in the book his character appears rather late on, so it is a pity that Wilmot did not have more to do. Denise Black does what she can with Mrs Otter (even the need to mark her out as Mrs is telling) but is hampered for the reasons already given. The weasels/stoats/ferrets seemed rather too much like Bennett’s conception of them for comfort though they seem to crave Toad Hall for anarchic reasons rather than wishing to bolster capitalism through property development. I’m not sure that kidnapping a young girl and keeping her in a cage is a particularly sensitive idea these days.
The show makes for a pleasant enough way to pass the time but I think it hadn’t quite decided who its target audience was and thus became a bit of a hodge podge. This is typified in the score which veers from Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche to furious rock and all points in between. Eventually there’s a song for everyone but there is a lack of overall consistency. And as for the moral that “a friend is still a friend” even when they do bad things that may, in these difficult times when we are being asked to snitch on our neighbours, be stretching things to breaking point. Perhaps we all need to be less like Rat and more like Toad in these challenging times; poop poop!
Production photos by Marc Brenner
The Wind In The Willows is available via the Jamie Hendry Productions website; click here.
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