Piers Torday is the playwright of The Wind in the
Willows Wilton’s and an acclaimed children’s author
I can’t imagine a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel, The Wind in the Willows, without music. He infused his prose with lyricism, overflowing with breath-taking descriptions of the changing seasons and the beauty of the riverbank that are impossible to dramatize through dialogue and action alone.
The light plot, with its blend of comedy of manners and farcical caper, also has strong musical comedy vibes. which is perhaps why previous adapters, from A. A. Milne to Julian Fellowes, could not resist mixing songs with the action. And keeping Willows musical honours the original text, which has several songs embedded in it, from Rat’s ditty for the ducks Uptails All to Toad’s boastful Hero. Julian Fellowes and Stiles and Drewe’s 2016 version is the only major full musical version. Most of the others fall into the ‘a play with songs’ category, as does ours.
So music and lyrics are at the heart of the Wind in the Willows legacy, both on stage and off, but for our version at Wilton’s Music Hall this Christmas, director Elizabeth Freestone, composer Chris Warner and myself wanted to try something different. We have updated the classic story to now, keeping all the sweetness, charm and friendship that people adore, but moving from the rural Thames riverbank to the urban London one. Our friendship quartet of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad is no longer only male, but mixed. And our story is less concerned with motorcars and caravan holidays, but finds Toad embracing some very modern fads…
But in a time of climate crisis, we wanted to put the nature back. We wanted a score and songs that celebrated the precious, unique British wildlife, landscape and seasons that we are still privileged to – just – enjoy. So for writing songs and the score, we looked less to previous musical theatre versions, and more to the countryside and its traditions.
This is an actor-musician-led production, in a wooden and stone music hall that vibrates with tradition and history, with a wonderfully warm, rich acoustic. Our inspirations were less the bright lights and tunes of Broadway, but more the foot-stamping folk festival in a tent in a field, or a cheering pub gig with misted-up windows and guitar songs around the campfire – not to mention our great tradition of protest songs. And, yes, our animals also live in a world of TikTok…
One of my favourite pieces is the title song, Wind in the Willows. The song draws not just from the eponymous phrase but the mystery of nature right at the heart of the book, the emotional pull of the seasons on us all, and the potential for change both within and without us that nature always inspires – and I think Chris’s music captures that so powerfully. You can hear a small sample below
The Wind in the
Willows Wilton’s runs at Wilton’s Music Hall 30 November – 31 December 2022