Music and Lyrics:George Stiles, Andrew Drewe
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Helen Tope
The Wind in the Willows is a much-loved classic, entertaining generations of children with stories from the riverbank. The adventures of Rat, Badger, Mole and Toad form a tale of friendship that lends itself to any interpretation. It’s therefore not surprising that The Wind in the Willows’ latest incarnation is a brand new musical – and it’s a musical with serious pedigree.
The book (taking its lead from the Kenneth Grahame original) is written by Oscar winner and Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes. With music and lyrics from Stiles and Drewe, and former Birmingham Rep Director Rachel Kavanaugh at the helm, The Wind in the Willows should be a fail-safe hit.
Luckily for us, the team behind The Wind in the Willowshas created a musical that brims with confidence. Not only giving us the Willows’ greatest hits – everything we will remember from the children’s book – but doing a genuinely great job at reminding us of how original and ahead of its time Grahame’s 1908 novel really was.
An original book deserves an original musical and The Wind in the Willows really isn’t afraid to be different. The costumes, lighting and scenery flow together to create an inner world that feels cosy, inviting and familiar. It’s a world of carefully drawn boundaries and rules that define Nature’s delicate balance – and that balance is about to be interrupted, perhaps for good.
The songs are what lift this production out of the ordinary: Stiles and Drewe give us a bold, inventive mash-up of musical styles, shifting from homely harmonies to 70s rock and even rap. Yes, if it’s good enough for Hamilton, it’s certainly good enough for Mr Toad.
A new musical’s blessing is that it doesn’t suffer from comparisons, but it also means that the material has to capture the audience’s imagination and do it quickly. TheWind in the Willows is populated with a large ensemble cast who are excellent at breathing life into the smaller characters. Watch out for these performances as they’re sneaked into every scene and they create a layer of detail that’s truly enchanting.
While everyone leaving will have their favourite character, you would need to have a heart of stone not to appreciate Fra Fee’s beautifully nuanced performance as Mole. Fee gives Mole a sense of emotional depth – and musicals should never be afraid of being real with their audience. Wicked has made a lot of money doing just that.
The lead performances from David Birrell’s indomitable Badger and Rufus Hound as the bombastic Toad are highly enjoyable, but it would be interesting to see how these performances evolve as the production goes on tour and into the West End. TheWind in the Willows, for all its pastoral charm, has a melancholy that provides the counterpoint to all that messing about in boats. Kenneth Grahame’s world was already encroaching on Nature, and Grahame knew this progress to be both inevitable and unstoppable. While this is touched on with some humour (you will adore the hedgehogs), to make this musical even better, it has to go deeper.
What we saw tonight is the beginning of a very special journey – it’s clear from watchingThe Wind in the Willows that there is even more to be discovered. That’s the thing with great stories – you never want them to end.
Runs until 22 October 2016 then tour continues | Image: Marc Brenner