Writer: Kenneth Grahame
Book: Willis Hall
Music and Lyrics: Rebecca Applin
Director: Matthew Cullum
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Twenty-six years ago, The National Theatre used all its stage technology to stage a visually thrilling stage adaptation of The Wind In The Willows. This summer, Colchester’s Mercury Theatre pulls off an equally stunning production, albeit on a fraction of the National’s budget.
In their second summer family show, the Mercury once again turn to director Matthew Cullum (at the helm for last year’s James and The Giant Peach) to produce a work that not only enthrals younger members of the audiencebut keeps all ages hooked.
Marshalling a small cast of actor-musicians, Cullum weaves his magic and creates Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical world with aplomb. The small cast creates a fully populated land, utilising Katie Syke’s excellent multipurpose set to full effect. Carrier bags, a couple of chairs and an abandoned shopping trolly forms Toad’s horse and cart, a case and a packing box a boat, and an abandoned number plate badgers front door sign. It’s attention to these small details that really sets this production apart.
The recycling theme echoes a subtle environmental message running just below the surface, the peaceful life of the riverbank threatened my increasing mechanisation. It’s a theme that could easily dominate but here is handled with a lightness of touch.
Willis Hall’s adaptation of Grahame’s original work packs a lot into two short hours, the fast pace helped by Rebecca Applin’s infectious earwormof a score. Fusing country hoedown, bluegrass and folk, it’s hard to resist clapping along. The music is well integrated into the action, aided by Barnaby Southgate’s onstage rabbit ear clad musical direction.
Cullum has assembled a fine ensemble that revels in the sheer joy of the piece. Kate Adams, Pete Ashmore and Sam Pay all work well together as the central trio of Badger, Ratty and Mole. There’s some beautifully thought through characterisation that never resorts to the cutesy animal impression.
Christopher Hogben is suitably malicious as the dark Wild Wooder, sneering and conniving to plot the downfall of Toad. There’s also fine character work from Louisa Beadel as a housemaid who will never give Delia a run for her money and Simon Spencer-Hyde in a range of roles.
Stealing the show, however, is Mercury favourite Dale Superville. Superville’s Toad is a gloriously flamboyant, comic creation. Constantly moving with barely contained energy, Superville captures the childlike innocence of Toad, while also hinting at the arrogance that comes with his perceived nobility. It is a performance that instantly connects with the audience, one that gets the audience rooting for his mischievous escapades.
Cullum’s production achieves that most difficult of things – providing true cross-generational appeal. Young children will lap up the slapstick, the music and the sheer spectacle, more seasoned theatre goers will enjoy the craftsmanship and the subtle nods to Les Miserables and even an appearance of the ubiquitous Eurovision wind machines. Whatever your age, though, the sheer overriding memory is of pure joy.
Inventive, slick and fun, a great introduction to the magic of theatre to younger theatregoers, a treat for regular attendees. Poop Poop!
Runs until 21 August 2016 | Image: Darren Bell