In the Willows – New Wimbledon Theatre, London

Book: Poppy Burton-Morgan

Lyrics: Keiran Merrick and Poppy Burton-Morgan

Music: Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick

Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Kenneth Grahame’s beloved children’s novel The Wind in the Willows has had many visits to the theatre before, with at least eleven distinct stage adaptations, from A A Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall, via a National Theatre adaptation by Alan Bennett, to a full stage musical with songs by Stiles and Drewe.

But as with any book written for children at the very start of the 20thcentury, the original work shows its age. Many a stage adaptation becomes an exercise in nostalgia for the parents in the audience, rather than something that could truly appeal to children.

Enter Metta Theatre, with a modern retelling that not only injects life into Grahame’s story but enriches it, moulding the original’s several story strands tighter together in a deliciously effective manner.

Director, book writer and co-lyricist Poppy Burton-Morgan relocates the animal tale from the riverbank to an inner city location, where Victoria Boyce’s Mole transfers to The Willows high school on the edge of the Wildwoods Estate. Badger becomes the teacher of an anthropomorphic classroom where the rabbits are mean girls, Seann Miley Moore’s Duck is a high-kicking camp marvel and Zara MacIntosh’s Ratty is an academic high-achiever who, despite Badger’s best efforts, is more interested in street dance and hip-hop.

By swapping Grahame’s “messing about in boats” to “messing around with beats”, Burton-Morgan’s adaptation deftly modernises the story without losing the essence of the original. Hip-hop rhythms merge with story beats to create a believable world from the outset.

Mole’s outsider status is reinforced by the musical theatre stylings of the songs given to Boyce: vocally, her style is alien to the tight-knit group of the Willows students. And with deaf dancer Chris Fonseca playing Rattie’s boyfriend Otter, Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography incorporates BSL, with Mole’s ignorance of sign language further emphasising her outsider status.

Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick’s music plays with these different styles throughout. As Rattie explains to Mole that she, too, understands what it is like to be a loner, she adopts Mole’s singing style — while Rowe’s Badger, the sort of teacher who can get through to any pupil, effortlessly switches between musical forms.

And then there is Toad. Any production of Grahame’s work must explain how the affected, infantile toff comes to be friends with animals from the other side of the riverbank. Here, Harry Jardine’s Toad is a fast-rapping, bling-wearing DJ who is obsessed with the latest gadgetry, from phones to scooters. Jardine and Boyce spark well together, ensuring Mole’s friendship is given and returned without question.

Fans of the original will recognise many of the tributes to key scenes from the original Wind in the Willows, including an inventive take on Toad’s laundry-related escape from prison. But while casting weasels as the hoodie-wearing gang terrorising the Wildwoods Estate may seem obvious, introducing a shared backstory between Mole and Bradley Charles’s chief weasel gives emotional weight to the fight for Toad Hall.

And that goes for the rest of this adaptation, too: a retelling that is not only visually and choreographically entertaining, but one that ensures the audience is rooting for all the young animals in the Willows. The result is a show that happily satisfies the demands of adult nostalgia while speaking directly to today’s younger generations. In the pantheon of Kenneth Grahame stage adaptations, In the Willows not only stands tall with Milne and Bennett, it backflips over their heads.

Continues touring until June 8 2019. | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Deliciously effective hip-hop retelling

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