Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre’s production of The Wind in the Willows is a deeply traditional affair. No concessions are made to the teenage years of the participants; there are no rock songs or rapping and the closest thing to a pop culture reference is a quick burst of the Charleston. This is not a bad thing.
Adam Forde and David Perkins’ new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel sticks closely to the original story, taking the conflict with the Wild Wooders as the play’s main focus. Wisely, there is much cross-gender casting; since you’re already casting humans as animals, casting girls as boys is hardly much of a leap. Lucy Gavan in particular makes the most of the part of Ratty, with a likeable posh, measured approach, while Anna Keith is an adorable Portly. Cameron Manson does a sterling job of Mr Toad in a fabulous green suit that couldn’t be froggier, though he could have done with a thought more face paint; he brings the necessary element of dignity to the role that only makes his wild enthusiasms the funnier. This production’s large cast makes for some magical scenes that really bring the forest to life – in particular the Christmas Eve is beautifully conjured, with badger’s cosy den ringing with charming carols from the young animals outside.
Kenneth Grahame’s book isn’t all peaceful riverbank sing-songs though, and it’s in portraying darker moods and moments of conflict that this production falls down. The sad downfall of the gypsy caravan is barely felt and the effectively mimed motor car never really careers of control; less forgivably, the battle for Toad Hall more resembles the end of a game of sardines, with a paltry few riverbankers bursting in on a gaggle of supposedly ferocious weasels, only to be met with instant surrender. At these moments, more of the young people’s energy and enthusiasm could find an outlet in some moments of true chaotic freedom to create the real threat needed for an ending of any catharsis. The same physical restraint hinders the songs; the actors sing in a spread out line or group that often barely moves, and dancing is thin on the forest floor. Admittedly, there are a lot of actors and a small stage to play on, but a bit of choreography would really help the characterisation of the different animals, and help develop the threat of the rather toothless Wild Wooders.
This traditional style of production is crying out for good old fashioned decorated flats, a real rowing boat and maybe even – as in many a treasured childhood memory – a revolving stage. This being the Fringe, though, Gabbie Bird’s design makes much of wicker baskets and travelling trunks, which are never quite big enough – or the admittedly already quite small actors aren’t small enough – to do their intended duty as homes and boats. Frankie Huin-Wah’s costumes deserve high praise, particularly the pitch-perfect hedgehog family, for being nostalgic without cloying. Nostalgia, in fact, is the prevailing mood of this delightful production; though you may not leave humming a catchy tune, it can’t fail but leave you with a truly Grahame-worthy, elegiac longing for riverbanks past.
Wind in the Willows played at Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival.