Christmas should be a time of magic for children of all ages, and one of the best and most time honoured ways of experiencing this, is a visit to the theatre over the Festive period. This can be a traditional pantomime, or something just that little bit different, and The Royal Opera House’s production of “Wind in the Willows” at The Vaudeville is just that. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the book – though you really should – as this show uses the wonderful device of providing Alan Titchmarsh (making his West-End debut) as author Kenneth Grahame who narrates the tale of Ratty, Mole, Toad and their friends.
The set itself is so inspired. The Narrator greets the audience in his attic. Full of the bric-a-brac associated with the most forgotten room in the home, he starts telling the audience his story and suddenly the attic becomes the riverbank. Mole (Sonya Cullingford) appears from a rolled up carpet, Ratty (Martin Harvey) from an old chest and the wardrobe becomes a myriad locations and homes. Slowly all the animals appear and there is a wonderful dance as they greet the start of spring/summer. As the story moves on, we are introduced to the truly awesome Cris Penfold as Toad, a character who fulfils everybody’s dream of being an adult without ever having to grow up. Toad has it all, a mansion, money, friend, the world’s shortest attention span and most self-centred personality. Cris’s dancing is sublime, and he really is the biggest kid on the planet, managing to elicit sympathy and love for such an unlikeable character. In total contrast, and finalising the list of principles, we have Badger (Ira Mandela Siobhan) the old man of the pack. Sensible and wise, he is the one the others go to for answers, and when Toad gets out of control with his latest toy, it is Badger that summons Mole and Ratty to the Wild Wood to plan how to stop him. Unfortunately the Wild Wood is perfectly named, as well as Badger, it is the home to the stoats and weasels, brought to life with a mixture of lovely puppetry and menacing dancing from the weasels led by the excellent Ewan Wardrop, scaring Mole and the audience alike. The last scene before the interval was truly amazing, drawing an audible gasp of breath from the audience (adults and children) with its magical involvement of everybody in the theatre.
A word of advice, don’t expect the interval to be a quiet time for knocking back a quick drink or slipping outside to check your phone. This is a show that doesn’t stop just because the curtain is down, and it was fabulous to see the joy on the faces off the children as unexpected things happened around them. The second act is even better than the first, with Toad in jail plotting his escape with the jailer’s daughter – a wonderful nod back to traditional pantomime that had the audience roaring with laughter – a railway chase, sword fighting, and a whole host of fast moving excitement for young and old alike.
This show is a magical gem. Martin Ward’s music evokes a spirit of the English countryside from the start, and the choreography/direction by Will Tuckett makes fantastic use of the dancers’ abilities to produce a truly mesmerising show. Alan Titchmarch is fabulous as the narrator. He is instantly recognisable to the audience and delivers the story perfectly – obviously relishing his role – even doing a bit of singing and dancing on the way.
For me, the measure of the success of a show aimed at children is two-fold. Is there something for the adults to enjoy? And, will it keep children entertained and focussed for nearly two hours? The answer to both questions in this case is a resounding YES! I can honestly say I started smiling the moment the narrator walked on the stage, and was still smiling when the cast took their well-deserved applause. Forget Coke and the “Holidays are Coming” adverts, every adult and ankle-biter out there needs to see “Wind in the Willows” to get their Xmas off to an appropriate and awesome start.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Wind in the Willows
This well-loved story is brought to life through song, music, dance and puppetry. The production, directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett, makes its return to the West End after an Olivier Award-winning run last Christmas. The production will be at the Vaudeville Theatre from Wednesday 26 November 2014 to Saturday 17 January 2015.
Choreographer and Director Will Tuckett, Composer Martin Ward, Narration Andrew Motion, Set designs The Quay Brothers, Costume designs Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting design Warren Letton, Puppet designs Toby Olié.
Orchestra CHROMA, Narrator – Alan Titchmarsh, Mole – Sonya Cullingford, Ratty – Martin Harvey, Badger – Ira Mandela Siobhan, Toad – Cris Penfold.
The Wind In The Willows
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 5+
Show Opened: 26th November 2014
Booking Until: 17th January 2015