Based on the international classic by Kenneth Grahame, this Royal Opera House production (moving into a West End venue once again) was first performed in 2002 and Will Tuckett’s choreography has lasted since. Unlike the average show to come out of the heart of Covent Garden, The Wind in the Willows is decidedly aimed at the young and, most significantly, hands over a great deal of the story to a Narrator, both the author and a magician who sees his creations live more or less independently. The casting department could not have done a better job in selecting Alan Titchmarsh for the part, who is just the right amount of old English grandpa mixed with authority, presiding over his riverbank. His much-televised love of nature makes him the ideal candidate.
The story takes a little long to get underway: the introductions to the world of the animals and the emphasis on its peaceful existence, foreshadowing trouble, might have been a lot more concise. When the action does start, it’s a sweet story of friendship and heroism: the animal kingdom is disrupted by weasels and stoats, dressed as rock stars from the eighties, prompting the good guys to work together in hatching a plan to drive them out. Meanwhile, troublemaker Toad’s (a very energetic Cris Penfold) road rage has earned him a jail sentence. Sonya Cullingford as Mole has the body language down to perfection.
The music by Martin Ward is inspired by George Butterworth’s compositions, and ranges from the playfully medieval to the darkly baroque, especially in the courtroom scene when Toad hears a disproportional verdict of twenty years(!) in prison against him, delivered by a gruesome puppet-judge. Puppets everywhere in this production add a fantastical touch, although I am yet to see it done better than in Complicite’s The Master and Margarita. Other gimmicks include snowfall, while in the interval Toad’s shenanigans continue, as he is chased by police in some good old-fashioned slapstick.
Visually it is all very well done (with design by The Quay Brothers and lighting by Warren Letton) and the mix of huge wardrobes and chairs with tiny cars and rocking horses works to stress the imaginative quality of the world the characters inhabit. The Wind in the Willows is as edgy as the annual John Lewis ad, but hey, it’s Christmas. As a child-friendly introduction to musical theatre or even ballet and opera, this works pretty well for all involved.
The Wind in the Willows is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 17 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Nimax Theatres website.