The Wind in the Willows always covered a time period much longer than one day, but this musical adaptation of the famous children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame might as well have been. Retaining the Edwardian mannerisms of the original, it takes a while to get going, as though it starts first thing in the morning, and the finale, a marvellous depiction of a celebratory party at Toad Hall, has all the hallmarks of a great night out. As ever with The Wind in the Willows, there’s a need to buy into the idea that members of the animal kingdom get on with one another with quaint British civility – the predator behaviours seen in David Attenborough documentaries are pushed aside in favour of the repeated refrain, “a friend is still a friend”.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, composer and lyricist respectively, have done animals belting musical numbers before – a production of their 1993 musical Honk!, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, played at the Union Theatre in April 2017. That production, as does this one, successfully keep both young and old entertained. It’s all very charming. This Mole (Craig Mather) is infinitely more likeable than the one in the book (for me, anyway), eliciting more sympathy than I would have expected. Certain sections from the novel have been simplified (do have fun working it all out), but all the salient points are there. Toad (Chris Aukett at the performance I attended, Rufus Hound having been indisposed because of a throat infection) gets up to all sorts of escapades, and his jovial, larger than life personality suits both the scale of the production and that of the London Palladium. The sillier, the better.
The set (Peter McKintosh) is theatrical brilliance, achieving a good balance between providing a spectacle and leaving just enough for people’s imagination. Each time the show finds itself in someone’s home, be it Toad Hall, or the much smaller Mole End, or the residence of Badger (a compelling and appropriately authoritative Gary Wilmot), it’s more than sufficiently distinctive. And I don’t think I’ve been as impressed by an on-stage train since a run of The Railway Children at Waterloo Station in 2011 – and that one had an actual steam train rolling into a former Eurostar platform.
The point about Toad going too fast in a motorcar (“Poop, poop!”) is as relevant now as it was then, and he isn’t the only one who behaves rashly, having to later deal with the consequences of not looking before leaping. There’s something very vintage about the motorcar being seen as superfluous, but in an age where use of public transport is encouraged in the capital, it’s simultaneously contemporary for London audiences too.
Simon Lipkin’s Rat is humorous and delightful. Neil McDermott as chief antagonist – sorry, Chief Weasel – takes the music up a notch or two, giving some much-needed variation to what would otherwise have been a production a tad too genteel. The ensemble is large, contributing much to proceedings – one scene, involving Mr and Mrs Hedgehog (James Gant and Jenna Boyd) and their offspring attempting to cross a main road, is especially heart-warming: “Although we’re armed with lots of prickles / We’re no match for large vehicles”.
The orchestra, conducted by Toby Higgins, skilfully work their way through an excellent score. Aletta Collins’ choreography is a pleasure to see. All things considered, this pleasant and playful production has, to quote a 1957 film title, a sweet smell of success.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The major new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved classic opens at the London Palladium from June 2017.
This riotous comedy follows the impulsive Mr Toad whose insatiable need for speed lands him in serious trouble. With his beloved home under threat from the notorious Chief Weasel and his gang of sinister Wild Wooders, Toad must attempt a daring escape leading to a series of misadventures and a heroic battle to recapture Toad Hall.
Featuring eye-poppingly beautiful design, exuberant choreography and a gloriously British score, The Wind in the Willows brings an explosion of anarchy, humour and heart to the world famous London Palladium.
8 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TF
Monday – 7.00pm
Tuesday – 2.30pm and 7.30pm
Wednesday – 7.30pm
Thursday – 7.30pm
Friday – 7.30pm
Saturday – 2.30pm and 7.30pm
Sunday – No Show