The much loved, frequently performed Kenneth Grahame 1908 classic, The Wind in the Willows, gets the big budget treatment in its transposition from page to stage in Rachel Kavanaugh’s rather twee new musical version adapted by Julian Fellowes at the London Palladium.
The riotous comedy follows the impulsive Mr Toad, whose insatiable need for speed lands him in series trouble. With his beloved home under threat from the notorious Chief Weasel and his gang of sinister Wild Wooders, Toad must attempt a daring escape disguised as a washerwomen leading to a series of misadventures and a heroic battle to recapture Toad Hall.
At First my heart sank as we meet the characters as the actors do not wear animal masks, so it is difficult to differentiate between them and they have to make sure we know who they are. Furthermore, the lavish treatment isn’t matched by a big, original central idea or strong personal vision, while its air of wholesome safety is so pervasive that even a posse of break dancing squirrels manages to seem inoffensive. But gradually the production gathers momentum and we begin to engage with the characters and immerse ourselves in this explosion of anarchy, humour and heart. There are three standout moments – the weasels running amok in Toad Hall when the vast expanse of the stage is used to great effect, the charming One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make sequence when the swallows grace the stage as flight attendants, and best of all when Toad makes his ubiquitous entrance through the roof of the theatre at the conclusion of the story.
But for me one of the best things about the show is composer and lyricist George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s attractive musical score, with its nods to the English choral traditions, Gilbert and Sullivan, Flanders and Swann and in the Wild Wooders’ We’re Taking Over the Hall to be raucous rock, whilst the best number The Open Road is more hummable. The choreography by Aletta Collins is exuberant and Peter McKintosh’s picturesque set design allows us to share Toad’s transports of delight as he steals open-topped sports cars and escapes his pursuers in an onrushing steam train.
A green-haired Rufus Hound bounds about the stage as the capricious, speed-obsessed, irrepressible Toad, bringing great gusto to the role. Gary Wilmot almost unrecognisable lends the wise old Badger a ramrod-backed, military air and a cautious mix of belt and braces, while Craig Mather’s Mole proves amusingly geeky and Simon Lipkin is a droll, down-to-earth Rat. Neil McDermott’s greasy Chief Weasel has a spivvy, Arthur Daley raffishness, and there’s an enlarged role for Denise Welch as Mrs Otter, though her relationship with the more familiar characters isn’t well defined.
The lack of any real drama or ploy will not bother the children in the audience. In short then, this is a pleasant, undemanding show for all the family.
Wind in the Willows
Showing at the London Palladium until 9 September 2017Last modified: April 6, 2021