Ant Stones adaptation of the traditional family classic The Wind in the Willows has been moulded perfectly to lockdown life, delighting families and keeping the joyous heart of the tale alive. Guildford Shakespeare Company, alongside Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre, transition the production onto Zoom to create a truly connected, engaging and exciting theatre experience.
Framed as a court case with the audience in the role of jurors we are asked to watch the case of a disturbance at Toad Hall, which has caused a nuisance, the destruction of several motor cars and of course breaks current social distancing practices. The famed group of friends, Miss Mole (Sally Cheng), Ratty (Robert Mountford), Badger (Chris Porter) and of course Mr Toad (Matt Pinches), recount their side of the story, taking us on their journey to defend Toad Hall. The physical and vocal characterisation of each role is wonderful to watch, capturing the original written essence of each character from the classic children’s book, with new live energy and excitement. Chris Porter’s cricket bat wielding Badger is a particular highlight with an exceptional stage presence and sense of authority communicated brilliantly over the digital form.
The production also makes excellence use of its new home on our screens as opposed to the stage. Matt Eaton’s sound design is beautifully ambient utilising Zoom’s sound sharing ability. Furthermore, unlike YouTube, Zoom allows you to see the other audience members as well as hear them prior to being muted for the main performance. For me this is a wonderful way to bring back some of the buzz of being in a live audience; hearing the excited pre show chatter, seeing the engaged faces of others enjoying the experience with you, as well as sharing an applause at the end really defines this as digital theatre as opposed to film or TV. Additionally, this also allows the cast to play with their audience, much like some stand-up comics, but now there is no hiding in the darkness of the back row!
While there were some slight technical hitches, such as audience members muting their mics too late making the main dialogue difficult to catch, and the balancing between soundscape and actors changing throughout the show, this doesn’t detract from the magic the production makes. Additionally, these mainly occurred while the audience was asked to unmute themselves and participate vocally with the production, which gave this production a real charm and family focused feel, so the technical issues then don’t seem to matter as much. Also, while my internet did cause some freezes in transmission, the production mainly ran smoothly with slick changes of green screen background and wonderful multirolling of character and costume from the cast, especially Johanne Murdock.
Despite small technical bumps The Wind in the Willows is a wonderful, whimsical and well-presented piece of true digital theatre. It delighted me to feel as though I was a part of a larger audience, while being sat at home, as I could hear others waiting for the show to begin and could see the enjoyment of other families as we watched and participated in the performance. For me this is an amazing example of digital family theatre to lighten lockdown life and delight old and young alike.