It is the most charming of children’s tales in English literature and this is the most successful stage adaptation of ‘The Wind In The Willows’ I have seen since Alan Bennett’s iconic 1990 National Theatre version. Theresa Heskins’ new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s magical story is cosy, snug, wholesome and golden. The comedy is not as adulty droll as Mr. Bennett’s; instead Peter Leslie Wild’s direction puts all the laughs straight into the kiddies’ laps. And how they loved it.
The New Vic is garlanded with hanging willows; the looping river (complete with darting fish) is projected brightly onto the theatre floor and spring is definitely in the air. Making the most of the talented children in the show, ducks are dabbling, rabbits are bobbing, and snooty blackbirds are in a hurry to get their nests built. When Mole’s winter-long, percussive, alarm clock wakes him, he shimmies up a hessian tube into the outside world …. a most clever device, developed for a play that is frequently required to go underground.
Grahame’s characters are so beautifully drawn, casting them is key; and in this the New Vic has thrown away the clichéd form book. This production determinedly avoids the anthropomorphic trap. The actors act like humans, with only a carefully managed tail to remind us otherwise.
Far from being a grumpy old so and so, Emma Manton’s Badger is a bright, perky school mistress, completely sans whiskers. Moles are black … and so is the actor. Alicia McKenzie brings a ‘younger sister’ feel to the part as she surveys her new playground. Richard Keightley’s congenial Ratty is refreshingly not played as a rear admiral and Rob Witcome’s Toad is not green and loud.
Instead he’s a bumptious but sensitive individual who just gets carried away by his excitements. Seeing him sitting amidst the wreckage of his canary coloured caravan, turning an imaginary steering wheel and murmuring ‘poop, poop’, tugs at the heart strings….as does his confinement to jail, with its “panoramic view of the gallows” and a “gruel buffet”.
It is here he sings one of the show’s finest numbers – ‘This Is The End’ – with just enough tuneless self-mockery to reassure us that it isn’t. Matt Baker’s music is exquisite throughout. Instruments seem to pop up everywhere … playing a repertoire ranging from a gentle soft shoe shuffle (ideal for messing about on the river) to a big Weasely Kurt Weil-style number. But it always steadfastly references the story’s Edwardian roots.
The car crash music is syncopated, and a rip-roaring composition accompanies the show’s big set piece. This is a fabulously inventive train chase with ladders as the rail track and a smoking top hat as the engine’s chimney. The children’s imaginations do the rest.
This really is a good show that is wholly faithful to the original … almost.
Purists will point a finger at the cruel besmirchment of Portly. The missing otter cub is not found safe and sound at the feet of Pan, but has gone over the dark side and joined the Wild Wooders, squatting in Toad Hall. I know he’s a little bit mischievous, but this is too much! However, it does give Sophia Hatfield’s Mrs Otter another chance to blow her top at her errant off-spring … an experience that many of the children in the audience will be able to relate to.
The whole evening, with it conciliatory, Christmassy conclusion, took me back to halcyon days I had almost forgotten. What a treat!
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Photo ; Andrew Billington