In the Willows – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Book and Lyrics: Poppy Burton-Morgan

Music: Pippa Cleary

Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan

Music and Lyrics: Keiran Merck

Designer: William Reynolds

Reviewer: Gareth Davies

Kenneth Grahame might very well be spinning in his grave. Which needn’t be a bad thing, if he takes his moves from the dance battle which marks the decisive climax of this hip-hop treatment of his pastoral children’s classic.

Metta Theatre, “which exists to change the world”, as their statement of purpose rather over-reachingly states, drags what was once just a gentle children’s story, populated with faintly unsettling anthropomorphised characters, hipping and hopping into the 21st century. There are enough references to the original tale to know this is rooted in Grahame’s imagination, but it owes rather more of a debt to the likes of Glee and High School Musical than the original story.

Once upon a time Mole was merely a shabby riverbank creature, venturing out into the Wild Woods and making new friends in an Edwardian idyll – now she’s a new girl (Victoria Boyce) at The Willows school, burdened with a rather leaden backstory and a gut full of social insecurity. Falling in with charming reprobate Toad (Harry Jardine) but with a pair of guardian angels in the guise of kindly teacher Badger (Clive Rowe) and streetwise Rattie (Zara Macintosh), Mole’s journey to socialisation is set to the rhythms and beats of hip-hop music and street dance.

Some of the song lyrics content themselves with clichéd sentiments and observations – and at one point commit what is probably a cardinal sin of actually citing statistics on youth reoffending rates – but at other times soar with creativity and imagination. It is notable that when the show dares to allow itself to go to the realm of the surreal it’s at its most fun and, crucially, interesting.

Two highlights both belong to Toad. A song celebrating an undemanding approach to life (Easy Life) is the most successful deployment of the creators’ move away from traditional stage musical idea, as Toad finds himself backed by a chorus line of dancers sending up the sequins-and-tap-shoe stylings of golden era Broadway. And later, as Toad dances around the ruins of Toad Hall, dressed only in green underpants and gold trainers, venting his outrage at the way the weasel gang have desecrated his home, lifestyle and goldfish (What Have They Done?), laugh out loud lyrical wordplay and committed performances from Jardine and company cement the night’s most memorable sequence.

There are pleasures elsewhere too: Boyce brings real heart to an expression of social anxiety, (Coming Up for Air), and the early company number referencing Grahame’s original writing (Messing About With Beats) both remain memorable, even if there’s no single showstopper that lingers after the curtain falls. Partly the problem with so many expressions delivered in rap style, spat out at full speed with multitudes of rhymes and broken rhythms, is the risk of much of the show seeming at one note, with not enough distinguishing styles and forms in the writing to truly mark peaks and troughs of the narrative journey.

And that narrative journey itself doesn’t dare deviate far enough from the known norms and expectations of the musical form; it never introduces a satisfying new twist on the familiar story, as Wicked did with The Wizard of Oz, for example, nor does it truly embrace its hip-hop musical form to make it essential to the production, as Cabaret did. (Perhaps the greatest trick Hamilton ever pulled was convincing the world we needed more hip-hop musicals…)

So although it’s passionately performed, and fittingly offers a visibly diverse cast of characters, it’s a shame the show sets its sights no higher than high school, and never justifies why this story gets this treatment. At times it’s hard to escape the slight sense of it being a big budget Legz Akimbo production, with sledgehammer moralising amid a well-worn ‘freaks and geeks’ trope, and ultimately it feels more destined for high-end theatre-in-education revivals than a West End stage.

“Stop teaching me a lesson,” one character remarks to (ironically) her teacher. Audiences might similarly crave a less polemic approach themselves.

Runs until 30 March 2019 | Image: Richard Davenport

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High-octane hip-hop

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The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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