Book: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Music: Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick
Lyrics: Keiran Merrick and Poppy Burton-Morgan
Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Reviewer: Nicole Craft
Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, like it or loathe it, certainly fits the bill of ‘Classic Children’s Novel’. First published well over a hundred years ago yet still many-a-child’s bedtime story memory, a reimagining of any nature is certainly risky. One might say that reimagining by bringing ‘The Willows’ into a 21st-century ghetto-esque secondary school then adding in street dance, hip-hop, rap, a non-binary character and BSL-adorned choreography might be dreaming a little too big… but this is exactly the river Metta Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre have decided to sail down with their new musical – In the Willows.
Mole (Victoria Boyce) is new in town. Having never quite got over the tragic drowning of her brother, who she feels she ought to have had the confidence to try and save, she never quite reveals her true self to others. After a less-than-warm welcome from her new ‘Willows’ classmates, teacher Badger (Clive Rowe), who is well aware of the dangers The Willows poses, entrusts street-wise Rattie (Zara MacIntosh) with the responsibility of looking out for the new recruit. Little does Rattie know that Mole not only has a hidden secret, but also shares it with gang-leader Chief Weasel (Matt Knight), who will do anything to maintain his thick-furred persona and hide his long-standing grief. Will Mole’s new friends still like her if the truth comes out? Will Weasel ever confront his inner-demons? And will Toad (Harry Jardine) find his clothes?
As the first scene begins, with the simple classroom seats and ‘The Willows’ gate setting already in place on-stage, it’s instantly clear this production has the potential to be outstanding. Chairs are choreographically moved, dance offerings are sassy, vocals boom. As each scene passes, it becomes apparent that potential doesn’t even slightly cut it and In the Willows is nothing short of absolute brilliance.
Undoubtedly with the assistance of renowned deaf dancer, Chris Fonseca – whose role as the deaf and signing Otter just doesn’t do his talents justice-, managing to naturally weave BSL into the narrative and dance in such a way that you know you’ve noticed it but barely notice it, is a feat in itself. Even without this, however, Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography packs a mean punch and plays an integral role in the production’s success.
Although the creative team deserves more than a pat on the back for its part, the shine cannot even slightly be taken off the performers who all work their flamboyant socks off to make In the Willows the masterpiece it is; to the point it’s impossible to pick out anyone as stronger or weaker.
Boyce plays the reserved yet desperate to make a stand Mole with a charming innocence and has vocals deserving of any lead musical role. Katherine Picar and Treasure Iyamu make perfect attitude-ridden Bitchy and Twitchy Rabbit, and Knight shows confidence as both hard-boy and reformed Weasel.
Fonseca shines as Otter, more than proving that hearing is not crucial to be able to dance, and beautifully bounces off MacIntosh with the pair mostly appearing together. Macintosh herself draws the eyes of the audience throughout, oozing confidence while implying inner-shyness with her movements and standing out with her vocals. Rowe makes for a loveable Badger and Seann Miley Moore ensures memorability as Duck. Despite being somewhat secondary in the main plot, Jardine’s portrayal of Toad is the most memorable of the evening. From his incredibly sharp rap skills to his ability to remain composed whilst standing in his underwear singing about caviar, he raises the most smiles, evokes the most giggles (even from the coolest of 10-year-olds who have to laugh into their hands while pretending they’re not) and ends up being the most loveable character of them all while providing one of the many songs we’ll be singing for weeks afterwards.
In short – It’s highly doubtful that this tour will be your only chance to catch In the Willows, but on the off chance it floats out to sea in a bid to be forgotten, get in there quickly and catch this brilliant family musical while you can.
Runs Until 23 March 2019 and on tour | Image: Richard Davenport