Writer: Julian Fellowes
Music and Lyrics: George Stiles, Andrew Drewe
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: David Jobson
After more than a century, The Wind in the Willows still enchants children with its charming tale. It has been adapted countless times for stage, movie and TV. Now it’s traipsing the open road with songs to match in this new musical adaptation of the novel, finishing its national tour at Southampton with a West End transfer already on the cards.
Downton Abbey writer, Julian Fellowes, has captured the book’s quaint, cosy tone beautifully. It follows the story closely so that the first 30 minutes can feel like a leisurely jaunt as we follow Ratty and Mole down the river, before joining Mr Toad on his caravan trip. Once the plot reaches his motoring fever and mishaps, the meat of the story, the musical ratchets up to third gear
A slow start can easily drag down a musical, and yet here what carries it is the chemistry between Ratty and Mole. Fra Free is endearingly bright and loyal, channelling the audience’s wonder, and complimenting Thomas Howes as the serene but stalwart Ratty.
Then again the story wouldn’t be complete without Badger, and David Birrell is perfect as the austere and wise old animal. An imposing figure who can leave the stoats and weasels quaking in their boots, but is a kind father figure to his friends.
All your favourite characters are here and they are complimented with some fantastic songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Having adapted children’s stories such as Just So and Honk! into musicals and provided additional songs for Mary Poppins, it is no surprise that audience will be won over by such delightful songs
The highlight would be the soaring number about the joyous arrival of Spring. Messing About in a Boat is a pleasant ditty for Ratty and Mole while ambling on the river. The Open Road too is a well-crafted number, with tap dancing horses. Some are a bit obvious like A Friend is Still a Friend and A Place to Come Back To but they are in the minority.
There are also some songs given to the other animals. The Hedgehog’s Nightmare is one that left the audience gasping at this prickly family trying to cross the road. The second act has an adorable winter song from The Wassailing Mice.
It is pleasant to see an adaptation that diverts the focus to the other riverbank residents, and it is surprising that they could find the time to include these in this 2 hour and 35 minute musical. On the other hand, these did break up the pacing at times.
Additionally, Sophie Nomvete has little to do as Mrs Otter than be the over-protective mother to her reluctant teenage daughter, played by Holly Willock. To go from a minor character in the book to an active companion for our band of heroes, she really comes off as a token character.
But what about the bombastic Mr Toad? With his boisterous personality, Rufus Hound gives a competent performance as himself. He won over the audience, and his singing of such songs like The Amazing Mr Toad is passable. All the same, with so many interpretations to be found in the multitude of film and TV adaptations, there is so much he could do with the role.
In fact, it is Neil McDermott who steals the spotlight with his animated performance as the Chief Weasel. He leads some fantastic dance numbers including The Wild Wooders and We’re Taking Over the Hall, thanks to Aletta Collins’ exuberant choreography
Still, there is a lot to like in this production. Not least because of the colourful and vibrant set and costume designs from Peter McKintosh. Every cast member is imaginatively kitted out as an animal with human-like apparel. The ovular sets bring the sprawling countryside to life and the different vehicles that appear do not disappoint.
While it isn’t perfect, this musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows brings all your favourite characters to life with such joy and fun, while maintaining the spirit of the novel. A treat for the whole family to enjoy.
Runs until 20 November 2016 | Image: Marc Brenner