The Wind in the Willows continues at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until 22 October. The production will then open at The Lowry in Salford and Mayflower Theatre in Southampton, prior to opening in London’s West End.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
On 8 October 1908, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was first published. Now, 108 years later, Stiles and Drewe bring a brand new musical adaptation to the stage with a book by regular collaborator Julian Fellowes (Mary Poppins, Half a Sixpence).
With this standard of creative team, plus a star-studded cast led by comedian and actor Rufus Hound as the tearaway Mr Toad, it’s not surprising that the audience awaiting The Wind in the Willows premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth had high expectations.
With the opening number ‘Spring’ and some spectacular production photographs already released online, I had a feeling that the show was going to guarantee some great vocals and incredible sets.
What I didn’t expect was to find a show full of energy, comedy and heart, which will have theatregoers falling in love with these riverbank creatures and becoming fully involved in their little lives full of trials and tribulations as they strive to help their friends.
From the opening notes, we are drawn into the riverbank world, created through the use of simple set pieces which come together to create different locations, from the grand Toad Hall to Mole’s humble home.
The rotating stage is put to great use here and is especially effective in the boating scenes between Ratty and Mole, and those that involve Mr Toad’s caravan, as it allows for the action to flow.
The clever and intricate costumes clearly illustrate each animal/character and yet aren’t over the top. Subtle touches range from Mole’s glasses and fingerless gloves to the ears and tail that complete Chief Weasel’s pinstripe suit. The hedgehogs’ spike-covered coats and spiked-up hair are a highlight (congrats to set and costume designer Peter McKintosh).
The animal characterisation is subtly done, allowing the audience to relate to the characters on a human level, without forgetting that they are, of course, riverbank creatures. From the moment when Mole drops to his knees to sniff around as he nears his home, to the rabbit butlers’ quivers and twitches as they await further instruction, you never forget that you are watching a show about animals.
With the older story as it source material, you may be fooled into thinking that this show would be full of operatic-style songs and some gentle rhythms, but instead its score is influenced by a real mix of musical genres.
From the operatic opener, full of beautiful harmonies, it is a fun surprise to see Mr Toad come out with an upbeat hip hop style number, and the evil weasels, foxes and stoats perform in a jazz style that matches with their cool and neat attire.
While Rufus Hound commands the stage with his brilliantly comedic performance as Mr Toad, full of slapstick comedy and brimming with energy, I found myself more drawn to the performances of Fra Fee as Mole and Thomas Howes as Ratty.
Their friendship is illustrated perfectly, from Howes’ gentle touches to his friend’s back and hands whenever Mole is afraid, to Fee’s boundless energy and desire to please his friend.
The vocals are on point, with each character appearing to have their own style that they bring to each song. Hound may not have the strongest voice, but he makes up for it in the energy and fun he invests in his portrayal of the speed-obsessed Toad.
The vocal highlight is Fee’s performance of ‘A Place to Come Back To’ about his love for his home: no matter how small or messy it is, at least it is his. It is touching, sweet, beautifully sung and makes you fall in love with Mole just that little bit more.
Only one small negative: audience members who are not as familiar with the original story may be left slightly lost by the quick and sudden time changes. While there are sung suggestions of the seasons changing, including a lovely swallows song and a charming field mouse wassail, these sometimes appear a little rushed in order to cover as much as the story as possible in the running time.
However, Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of The Wind in the Willows is a perfect family show, bringing the charm of the original story to life with a more modern feel, thanks to the use of different genres of music.
The characters are as lovable as they have always been and the performances of this cast will make you love them even more than you did before.
A young audience member summed it up brilliantly: “I expected it to be boring because the story is so old, but actually it was really fun.”
And that’s it, the show is fun. It’s family entertainment in its highest form, full of childhood charm that allows your imagination to run wild in the world of the riverbank.
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