Playtime begins the second you enter the poky foyer of Theatre 503’ intimate venue. Before the audience have had the chance to take their seats, we are introduced to the rambunctious cast of characters as they weave in and out of us hapless onlookers. An otter, rats, moles, badgers and a host of other bestial brethren, armed with finger-paints and intense child-like curiosity, mark newcomers and claim ownership of them into their pacts and gangs. It’s a fitting preamble to this endlessly inventive and uplifting adaptation Kenneth Grahame’s much loved source material.

Perhaps the first thing to mention should be the productions transposition from it’s site-sensitive origins in the forested setting of this years Latitude Festival, to it’s current home on the end-on stage of Theatre503’s cosy upstairs theatre. While I cannot profess any first-hand knowledge of the original production, it’s clear that this shift, from an expansive and atmospheric environment to the conventions of a strictly demarcated theatre-space, was surely a significant challenge for the NSDF10’ company. Fortunately, there are only the fewest signs of strain in this marrying of performance and space; overall, Ashley-Scott Leyton’s production conveys a burst of contagious energy and boasts an impressive ensemble cast of characters with an aptitude for rich and imaginative storytelling.

Those of you who are familiar with Willows will no doubt recognize it’s allegorical significance, as a parable of class conflict and British societal hierarchy. Whereas Grahame’s original tale portrayed the inevitable suppression of a downtrodden underclass by a wise and prestigious bourgeoisie, James Phillips adaptation re-works this into an ironic indictment against the ignorance’s of class hatred and the historical lessons of failed revolution. For example, when at the close of the play Weasel (“open bracket, small, close bracket!”) ruminates in despair that “this will happen every year, nothing ever changes”, its difficult not to feel bitterly reminded of the contemporary state of affairs regarding the class disjuncture at the heart of our ruling elite. Although the text is open to these contemporary shadings, it is also a great deal of out-and-out daft fun, with some wonderful set pieces and cleverly devised moments that will stick with you afterwards. For example, Toads roaring motor journey through the willows is accompanied by a variety of natural sound effects from the ensemble cast. As the cast create the noises of a chugging engine and rumbling tyres, the action escalates until Toad, gripping a porcelain bowel turned steering wheel, veers into oncoming destruction. Later on, Ratty and Mr. Moles’ escape through the forests of the weasels is devised with a similar flair: as the freighted pair sprint in profile to the audience, the weasels rotate a number of potted plants to each other in assembly-line fashion, creating a genuinely laugh-out-loud parody of the passing trees and foliage.

Despite the ensemble’s finely attuned group work, there are a number of standout performances. However, special mention must go to Rupert Lazarus’ portrayal of the freewheeling The Toad. His impressive performance conveyed the character as a showboating narcissus, endlessly pontificating through a booming baritone and an endless series of sweeping and grandiose gestures. The overall conception of these characters as anthropomorphic equivalents of recognizable class types was brilliantly executed through the connotative appliance of make-up. The synthesis of tweed, furs and contemporary fabrics was also put to good use in creating a layered and satisfying costume design. It is a tenet of this production, and perhaps its most defining feature, that the idea of ‘play’ as an infantile escape into imagination is taken to its logical conclusion in the overall style of the performances. In what is surely the productions most moving scene, the cast enact their closing song “Let’s go Home” while gently wiping away the animal make-up from each others faces. Indeed, the effect of this moment, executed with panache from the cast, is that we as the audience are lifted gently out of the performance along with the actors, instead of being kept at a safe distance as isolated spectators.

NSDF10’s The Wind in the Willows is a fast-paced, colourful and imaginative take on this much loved and oft-adapted classic. As well as boasting a tight-ensemble of gifted performers, musicians and singers, the production displays a wit and inventiveness of style that rarely fails to put a smile on the face of all ages. Although the staging limitations imposed by the transferal of space occasionally result in some crammed action, this is merely a slight criticism that should not detract you from partaking in what is a surprising highlight of the festive season.

The Wind in the Willows is playing at Theatre503 until 18th of December 2010. To book see the website. For more information on NSDF and how you can get involved, see their website.