Writer: Kenneth Grahame
Adaptation: Mark Powell
Director: Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti
“All along the backwater, Through the rushes tall, Ducks are a-dabbling, Up tails all!” And what a joy to sit by the River Tummel and soak in the ancient landscape, the redolences of the summer, all under the watchful gaze of the still hibernating Pitlochry Festival Theatre – ready to emerge from slumber with a tremendous roar of live theatre. The time has never been better to pack a picnic, stow away the brolly and unwind and introduce the young and vintage to the wonders of Ratty, Mole, Badger and of course, the chaotically charismatic Toad of Toad Hall.
One of Britain’s most recognisable and marvellous tales, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, finds the colourful cast of waterside critters come together to welcome a new resident to the Willows: Mole. A creature who has spent their life underground takes a fancy to the post-winter world of sunshine, drizzles, and boat side adventures. But of course, this all takes a backseat to the fabulous, farcical Toad and his newest interest; Motey Cars and Hooman Beings.
And why wouldn’t Colin McCredie enjoy his time as the Tweed-clad hopping bundle of energy? Channelling all of the energy and delicious mischief of a child, McCredie takes to the role like a fish to water, or rather, a toad to a lilypad. Or in this case, a motor car. Tarted up in the finest costume designer Natalie Fern can conjure, McCredie’s Toad is joined by the calm, humble and eventual righteous firecracker Alicia McKenzie’s Mole, and the pun-toting and innocent appeal of Conor Going’s Otter, who also provides a spectacular vocal performance as the Judge alongside Katie Milner Evan’s slimy and cocky Chief Weasel.
Now, on the subject of original music – quite often, it’s found that the effort which goes into the score of a production intended for young audiences is, how do we say, less eloquent. And yet, Occhipinti’s score and composition of The Wind in the Willows not only balances the quaintness of the countryside with more contemporary lyrics, but the verses are catching, and further both the characterisation and narrative.
Vocally, there’s nary a dud-note, with the cast maintaining accents and attitude across the production’s musical moments. But now, the real jewel of the riverbank: Jane McCarry’s steadfast Badger, Horse and Washerwoman are superb. A comedic brilliance beloved by all in Scotland, McCarry is notable to most fans as a certain nosey neighbour but is a triumph of Scottish stage and music – and is only rivalled by Ali Watt’s fastidious, yet sympathetic and moral compass of the show as Ratty.
Where Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti’s stellar direction achieves nigh-perfection is the long-missed Pantomime openness in the heart of summer. But without cheapening the exposure, the movements to and from the set-pieces come over as natural and uncontrived as the cast interacts with the audience, extending the space and furthering the accessibility of the show. Further, there’s a few ‘Poop, Poop’ surprises in store which push Newman’s set design to the limits of imagination and stoke the envy of the motorheads in the audience.
This country, both singularly and collectively as the United Kingdom, has an unspoken and besmirched past in its refusal to admit privilege. To see the empirical mindset so openly challenged by a children’s tale is not only thought-provokingly bold but nuanced in its measured respect to the audience. Credit to Mark Powell, The Wind in the Willows may take its image and charm from the white-washed romanticist peace of stately homes and babbling brooks but doesn’t refrain from reminding us of the misplaced communities and institutional abuse the postcard image Britain has left behind.
Perhaps most ingeniously, Powell’s adaptation not only pays tribute to the rose-tinted nostalgia of the English riverbanks but allies this quaint area of the country in the heart of Scotland while still channelling the Highland’s into the production’s aesthetics and core. At a time where tempers fray and division spreads, quite often we need only look to the childhood stories that raised us to remind us of basic lessons of inclusion, family, and forgiveness – ones we seem to have burned.
Runs until 12 September 2021 | Image: Douglas McBride