Written by Julian Fellowes, this is an adaptation of Kenneth Graeme’s children’s classic, with Ratty (Simon Lipkin) and Mole (Craig Mather) messing about on the river, avoiding the wild wood, and trying to keep a handle on their adventurous friend Toad (Rufus Hound).
The action opens revealing an incredible set from Peter McKintosh. A series of arches gives us a glimpse into a woodland burrow, and out into the wood beyond, with colourful branches coming down from the flies, and a hillock in the middle of the stage. The use of a revolve helps with quick scene changes and the locations are spectacular, with a book-filled badger sett, opulent country house and a locomotive to name but a few.
While you’re marvelling at the set however, the main tone of the piece is driven through the music (George Stiles and Anthony Drewes). With plenty of brass and major key, the orchestra pushes the show forward with great, upbeat energy.
This is complemented by some cracking ensemble singing and dynamic choreography (Aletta Collins), which keeps the energy really high. The songs themselves are good with both variation and humour. In the second half as the story turns darker, they become slightly more repetitive, but the reprises of songs work well, with tonal changes covering scene transitions, which reflects a strong control of tempo. The show comes into its own, though, when producing fantastic, big numbers which build and build with great timing.
The songs themselves reflect well the tone of the script, which contain Fellowes’ typical dry humour, usually administered by Ratty. The script isn’t really given enough time to develop, especially in the first half, as time is sacrificed for songs. This is not necessarily a problem, it just means some scenes and character developments are a little rushed. In the second half this becomes slightly more of an issue in terms of feeling true sympathy for any of the characters, but it does not hinder enjoyment, and it remains funny throughout. Occasionally, set pieces don’t quite hit the mark, such as the shadow work in taking back Toad Hall, but these are few and far between, and the moments where spectacle is the aim are brilliantly executed.
Peter McKintosh’s outstanding costume design reflects a modern feel. There is a very clear concept to pair character traits with pertinent colours and slight suggestions of physical nature (spines for the hedgehogs). This leaves you with weasels in natty suits and Toad in a shiny green ensemble, for instance, which really adds to those characters.
As for the cast, the most notable thing is the excellent ensemble work, seamless movement and great singing, as well as some lovely cameos. The strongest performance comes from Lipkin as Ratty, providing the most rounded character and some lovely comic timing. Hound as Toad has boundless energy with some wonderful character in the songs to add to a strong voice – his excitement is infectious. As Chief Weasel, Neil McDermott has a lovely mischievous glint in his eye, and moves around the stage with real presence and swagger. Other notable performances came from Mather as Mole gradually coming out of his shell, Wilmot as stalwart Badger with a lovely, dry turn of phrase, and from the ensemble, Bethany Lindsell as a swallow, who backed up a lovely voice with some fine character work as a weasel.
Overall, there are flaws in terms of a fully developed production. However, anything lacking in fleshed out characters and story is made up for with energy, humour and a large amount of spectacle and song. Perhaps not for the theatre purists, but very enjoyable for anyone else. Poop poop!
The Wind in the Willows is playing the London Palladium until September 9.
Photo: Marc Brenner