The Wind in the Willows
Opening Night – 29th June 2017
“My-oh-my, a summertime hit, Poop Poop!”
Taking a novel that’s been much loved for more than a century and turning it into a stage musical isn’t ever going to be an easy task. Stray too much from the original (Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’) or tamper too much with the characters and you risk alienating generations of fans. Make it too safe and you end up leaving theatre goers disappointed.
Thankfully, this is a production that should delight everyone whether they’ve read the novel or not. With Julian Fellowes (book) paired with multi award winning Stiles & Drewe (music and lyrics), this was almost guaranteed to be a hit. Wind in the Willows is the third Fellowes penned musical now in the West End, alongside Half a Sixpence (also featuring the work of Stiles & Drewe) and School of Rock. This man is frustrating talented!
The staging at first looks quite simple. An opening set that seems to be just a series of concentric semi-circles; yet these make you focus immediately centre stage and there’s clearly a point to this. The sets throughout are designed almost symmetrically around the centre of the stage, key elements of the show (you’ll get to see everything from a horse drawn caravan to a canal barge) are strategically placed so your eye doesn’t wander. So although simple at first glance, Peter McKintosh has created one of the neatest set designs I’ve seen in a long time.
McKintosh is also responsible for costume and with it the specific challenges of the anthropomorphism of the characters. Again this has been achieved in quite a pleasantly simple, yet delightful way. There are thankfully few complete ‘animal costumes’ on show; the foxes garbed bizarrely as fox hunters are the nearest you get to this. The rest of the show’s fauna is mostly created through a range of subtle touches such as colouring or a tail or ears. An exception to this is the elaborate Gaultier-like spines of the scout uniform attired hedgehog family.
The plot adheres mostly to Grahame’s original with a little bit of artistic license thrown in (an online spat recently took place about Mr Otter and Portly now becoming Mrs Otter and Portia). It’s very easy to follow what’s going on so can easily be enjoyed by all the family. The action ranges from gentle meandering in boats to in-auditorium surprises.
Casting is near perfect; Rufus Hound as the pompous and impulsive Toad is outstanding throughout, Gary Wilmot as the slightly curmudgeonly Badger brings a dignified air to the show and Neil McDermott’s spiv like Chief Weasel (with curiously long tongue) was just a delight to watch (Weazelz rule!). The only character who didn’t really excite was Denise Welch’s Otter that just felt a little flat.
Stand out performance of the show goes to the double act of Mole (Craig Mather) and Ratty (Simon Lipkin). The pair worked perfectly together and deservedly got one of the biggest rounds of applause. Craig Mather, already having starred in Les Miserables is surely set to become one of our best musical theatre actors.
The songs are all enjoyable enough as you’d expect from Stiles & Drewe. The Wassailing Mice sung by the field mice on Mole’s house is charming and The Hedgehog’s Nightmare is a nice little comedy number; the other songs range from the gentle heart warming numbers such as A Friend is Still a Friend to the rousing likes of We’re Taking Over the Hall.
Further mentions must go to director Rachel Kavanaugh whose direction is top class and of course to the talented orchestra led by Toby Higgins. Finally, the other members of the cast for being weasally distinguished weasels, stotally different stoats alongside a myriad of other creatures.
Great songs, some sharp one liners, a few surprises here and there (generally from Mr Toad) and a plot that is easily followed by all (take note Bat Out of Hell) will make The Wind in the Willows appeal to all ages.
Reviewed by David A Hughes
Production Photography by Darren Bell
The Wind in the Willows
is at the London Palladium until 9th September