Pah pah! Polka Theatre’s production of The Wind in the Willows roars along at the pace of Mr. Toad’s motor car, sweeping up its audience of under-11s, and many of the adults too, into a giggling frenzy. Kenneth Grahame’s timeless story of the friendship between a group of woodland animals is beautifully retold by Toby Hulse, who manages to combine the charm of the original with a real sense of playfulness and energy.
This playfulness is best conveyed in moments such as the interplay between the animal and human worlds. The gang make use of two gigantic spoons as the oars of Ratty’s boat, a Colman’s Mustard box becomes a caravan and the gigantic Toad Hall is a red letter box. The sheer inventiveness of it is a delight and draws some lovely parallels between the worlds of children and adults. It also works as a nice little nod to the darker side of human nature, in which Mr. Toad’s famous spell in prison becomes entrapment in a glass jar, his prison warden a cruel boy.
The cast all put in strong performances and yet the real star of the show is Mr. Toad himself, played by an exuberant Robert Saunders. His energy does mean his absence at the start of the second half results in a slight dip in pace that is rescued by a touching song, sung by the lovely Ailsa Joy as Mole about the delights of home, a particularly important theme in the book.
Another of the book’s themes that is utilised well is that of class differences. Mr. Toad is the perfect example of an eccentric upper class fool and this is nicely realised in moments such as his disregard for his ferret servant, for only select animals have voices and know how to use them. Spying the mistreated ferret amongst the animals that take over Toad Hall in the climax of the play, I couldn’t help but feel slightly on the side of the squatters as the gang attempt a daring rescue.
A well choreographed fight later results in victory for the woodland friends and yet the real triumph lies in Mr. Toad’s journey from pomposity to his acceptance of himself as just the same as his new-found friends. With a fairytale set and enchanting costumes, The Wind in the Willows is a fantastic alternative to the glitz of celebrity filled pantomimes and is a real Christmas gem.
The Wind in the Willows is playing at the Polka Theatre until 16 February 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit www.polkatheatre.com