The Wind in the Willows is the latest collaboration between Julian Fellowes (book) and song-writing team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Their adaptation of Half a Sixpence is enjoying rave review in the West End, and George and Anthony are no strangers to creating hit shows for the whole family to enjoy having previously won an Olivier Award for Honk! (which famously beat The Lion King to the top honours) and also written new songs for Mary Poppins.
The Wind in the Willows starts promisingly with company number Spring, its richly layered harmonies making full use of the large cast (and bearing more than a passing similarity to Riverdance). It’s swiftly followed by the equally charming “Messing About on a Boat” – complete with otter ballet. Peter McKintosh’s set is simple and effective, using a series of concentric circles and trucks which wheel on and off to portray life on the riverbanks. It’s an idyll broken only by a pertinent warning to beware the Wild Wood and the wide world beyond. But danger seems far away, and there are lots of animals that kids will love, including Mrs Otter (Sophie Nomvete) whose daughter Portia (Holly Willock) keeps disappearing (more of that later).
The Swallows, three off-duty air stewardesses make an all-too-brief visit with a beautiful song “One swallow Does Not a Summer Make” which segues neatly into the impressive arrival of Toad Hall (hats off again to Peter McKintosh who also designed costumes) and a rather spiffing canary-yellow gypsy caravan, driven by Mr Toad (a delicously roguish Rufus Hound): Think Jeremy Clarkson meets The Mask with the occasional “Poop Poop” the only warning to other road users to flee for their lives.
It seems that no road is safe from this automobile-crazed amphibian, and to allow for the carnage Mr Toad leaves behind to be cleared, a family of hedgehogs appears (for me one of the show’s highlights). Great comic timing and some clever rhymes “Although we’re armed with lots of prickles/We’re no match for large ve-hicles” ensure that “The Hedgehog’s Nightmare” brings the house down.
In an attempt to contain Toad’s worst excesses, Mole (Fra Fee) sets off through the Wild Wood to find Badger. Gnarled roots, deformed branches and swirling smoke crowd in with “foxes, weasels and stoats who go for your throats”, but fortunately, Ratty (Thomas Howes) is never far behind. Soon enough they find Badger (a commanding David Birrell) but menace lurks nearby, with anarchic Chief Weasel (played quite excellently by Evan Jones in the absence of Neil McDermott) in revolutionary mood. As he says, “All property is theft – and when it comes to Toad Hall, it’s time we took it back!”
It’s here that this theatrical juggernaut hits a bump in the road. A show which is so clearly aimed at younger children is bound to struggle with an existentialist conversation – be that about Mr Toad or any other creature – and despite the rousing anthem “A Friend is Still a Friend”, a mass exodus to the toilet of a school group just in front of us spoke volumes about the need to tighten up the book here.
Fortunately, the show is soon back on track and in Mr Toad’s magnificently ostentatious bedroom. It seems that, despite the best efforts of his friends, the irrepressible Mr Toad just won’t stop driving – yes, the similarities to Jeremy Clarkson keep on coming!
At its best, the script offers wonderfully witty lines which Maggie Smith herself couldn’t deliver better and when Portia is snatched by the Weasels and Mole consoles Mrs Otter with a cheery “Well…thank goodness you have other children”.
With Ratty, Badger & Mrs Otter off in search of Portia, Mole guards Toad…at least until he’s tricked into fetching a doctor, leaving Toad free to make his escape. Here I found the story rather confusing and in fact wondered if I might have drifted off and missed a bit because suddenly we were plunged headlong into a laborious courtroom scene where a jury of stoats and weasels finds Mr Toad guilty of stealing a car. I’m not sure if the children in the audience had any more idea of what had happened than I did – perhaps Lord Fellowes just assumed everyone already knew the story and could fill in the gaps themselves?
Act Two begins with a deliciously dark “We’re Taking Over the Hall” and if Neil McDermott is even half as good as his understudy then London audiences are in for a real treat. Mr Toad, who has spent the interval languishing in gaol, is soon saved by a buxom gaoler’s daughter (Jenna Boyd – who also plays Mrs Hedgehog and almost deserves an Olivier for both). She not only smuggles in tea and toast but also affects Mr Toad’s escape in full drag. “To Be a Woman” allows both Boyd and Hound to show off their impeccable comedic skills and suddenly things are zipping along like a stolen Ferrari.
The pathos in Act Two is well-judged. Mole and Ratty’s relationship is the most touching – helped in no small part by Fra Fee’s utterly beguiling performance – there’s a lovely moment when Mole worries that his home may not be good enough for Ratty. The wassailing mice who come to see Mole every Christmas offer another clever marker of time passing and their singing tugs effectively on the heartstrings of even the hardest-hearted grown-up.
While Badger hatches a plot to intercept escaped felon Toad, I did find myself wondering if everyone had simply forgotten about Portia, but my concern soon passed with the arrival of an impressive steam train which allowed a clever high-speed chase between Toad and the police in hot pursuit on a kalamazoo (yes, I had to google it too) – it’s very funny indeed.
Act two is far more engaging and plot-driven, with Toad stowing away on a barge disguised as a washer-woman – cue lots more physical comedy trying to wash the barge-owner’s gigantic smalls in a bucket (it’s an old panto gag but it works beautifully). But this is one barge-woman not to be messed with and after being cast into the river, a forlorn toad trudges home alone.
The finals scenes take place in Toad Hall. And all the ingredients are there for a gloriously entertaining finale – from secret passageways to daring ambushes. The ending may be a little light on morality but then again it’s quite refreshing to see a children’s show which doesn’t patronise…and even though Toad really hasn’t learned his lesson, you have to admire any amphibian that can out-Boris Boris Johnson.
Mayflower Theatre, 17 November 2016
Verdict: An inventive show with some stand-out numbers, clever set and a fantastic cast. The book needs tightening up, but still fun for younger children.
Book tickets now for The Wind in the Willows at the London Palladium from 14 June – 9 Sept 2017.