Book: Julian Fellowes
Music &Lyrics: George Stiles &Anthony Drewe
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: John Roberts
There is something endearing about Kenneth Grahame’s story of friendship and survival among the animals of the woodland. It’s appeal never seems to weaken as new generations are introduced to the tales of Mole, Ratty, Badger and the eponymous Mr Toad. So it was no surprise when producer Jamie Hendry, along with musical theatre writers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and well-known screenwriter Julian Fellowes, announced a new family musical of the timeless tale.
Stiles and Drewe are no strangers to anthropomorphic musicals, in fact, a lot of the duo’s back catalogue – Just So, Three Little Pigs and Honk! to name but three have taken their inspiration from the animal world – so it seems almost a perfect fit for them to tackle this new multi-million pound musical. The score is distinctly stamped with their musicality and although enjoyable with some clever and witty lyrics the songs never really stand over the parapet and say “Listen to me”. Fellowes’ book is pleasant enough with plenty of humorous moments (tap dancing horses) to keep both adults and children entertained but it never feels like it finds its stride and its own voice, instead the book stays rather too close to the original novel and it overall feels a little lazy and obvious.
It’s strange then that a musical where the book and music are straddling the line of average that the production still feels engaging and enjoyable, but that is in no small amount due to the energetic cast, strong direction from Rachel Kavanaugh and Peter McKintosh’s stunning set design.
Headlining the cast is Rufus Hound as Mr Toad – he certainly looks the part with his dyed green hair and rakish moustache and gives a performance that just about hits the right mark – Hound could have done with injecting the role with a little more gung-ho and bombast for this reviewer to really champion him in the part. David Birrell brings plenty of gravitas to the grandfatherly role of Badger, Thomas Howes in engaging as the eccentric Ratty and Fra Fee is totally charming as the explorative and questioning Mole. As Chief Weasel Neil McDermott camps things up delightfully and finds a nice balance in menace especially for a family audience, notable support also comes from Jenna Boyd as a Scouse gaoler’s daughter and as mother hedgehog, Sophia Nomvette as Mrs Otter and Holly Willock in her professional debut as the runabout otter Portia.
But the show’s wow factor really comes from Peter McKintosh’s show-stealing set and costume design. In the costume department, McKintosh has cleverly found ways to anthropomorphise their clothes without taking it too human and his set certainly has the WOW factor. This is quite possibly the best-looking set this reviewer has seen all year.
The Wind in the Willows is an enjoyable evening at the theatre with plenty of magical moments but still needs some refinement especially in the second act – which could lose a few cute but superfluous songs to help keep it on track especially as it now vies for a home in the West End.
Runs until 6 November 2016 | Image: Marc Brenner