London, Palladium (venue)
26 June 2017 (released)
29 June 2017
Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) perfectly captures the nostalgic England of The Wind in the Willows, with classic staging, touching performances and a beautiful new score by composer George Stiles and lyricist Antony Drewe. After huge success with Mary Poppins then The School of Rock, Fellowes has evidently found the magic ingredients for an up-lifiting family musical.
There are no daring new concepts here, no projections, no live video links. It doesn’t need them. I defy anyone who read Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel as a child not to feel the years role back in very first number, ‘Spring (the most beautiful time of the year),’ As I sank happily back into my seat, the little boy next to me perched on the front of his, eyes bright with anticipation.
From messing about in the river to braving the wild woods, it’s the friendship and loyalty of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall that makes Grahame’s classic children’s story timeless and heart-warming. The original characters are so well drawn, it’s easy to identify friends from our own lives and the life-long messages are as powerful as they ever were. With contemporary understanding of mental illness, Toady’s character is entirely recognisable, and his ‘addiction’ to speed could be any other addiction.
Understudy Chris Aukett covered Mr Toad for Rufus Hound on press night, no doubt a terrifying prospect at this early stage in the run After Simon Lipkin (playing Rat) came on stage to make the announcement, there was a thrilling sense of being part of a team that were going to pull together against the odds. Not so far from the story of Wind in the Willows itself. Huge credit to him for delivering a lovelable and bumbling Mr Toad, contrite one minute and high as kite the next.
Mole is played with quiet conviction and the lightest of touch by Craig Mather. One of the most moving moments is when he returns to his little hole after staying with Ratty so long and hears the field mice wassailing overhead. Neil McDermott is delicious as chief Wiesel, an irresistible gangster (bullied as a child), leading the ‘wild wooders’ in a knife wielding, tongue flicking dance at Toad Hall. The orchestration is deliciously rich throughout and there’s no shortage of great tunes with ‘We’re taking over the hall’ and ‘A friend is still a friend’’ already sounding like classics.
The passing of time felt through the changing seasons frames the show, and Peter McKintosh’s set is organic and elegant, shifting fluidly between indoor and outdoor locations. Huge life-like vehicles will impress the younger audience, a gypsy wagon pulled by a tap-dancing horse, Toads motorcar built on stage, the barge-woman’s boat and a black steam train when he makes his escape from prison.
For the most part, the show is gently funny and breath- takingly touching. Rachel Kavanagh’s direction is subtle enough to be relished by adults yet with enough physical comedy and rousing company numbers to delight all ages. Not to be missed…
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