Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
To provide some escapism and light relief from the prevailing news reports surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic, the producers of the West End 2017 production of The Wind in the Willows are streaming the show online for free. Whilst I appreciate the attempt to bring the magic of theatre to the comfort of one’s home, this production with its bumpy and dull storyline and unlikeable, arrogant protagonist, partnered with buffering Wi-Fi, leaves something to be desired.
Based on the 1908 much-loved classic children’s story by Kenneth Grahame, this musical adaptation has been given the big Broadway bucks treatment. This production is adorned with elaborate, gaudy costumes and a meticulously designed set to wow audiences across the nation. The musical centres itself around the Edwardian discovery of and voracious need for speed and follows various characters, including Mr Toad, Ratty, and Mole, in their adventures along the riverbank.
With composer-lyricist partnership Stiles and Drewe breathing life and music into this production, I was very optimistic. This collaboration, the creative team behind the 2004 Olivier-award winning production of Mary Poppins, have blessed the stage with some of the most beautiful harmonies and melodies, meaningful lyrics, and clever, quick-witted rhymes of modern theatre. Furthermore, as anthropomorphic musicals go, they are the best in the business, as they proved in their successful musicals, Just So and Olivier award-winning Honk!. Normally, they perfectly translate the emotions, trials, and tribulations of the animal kingdom into music. However, this score seems somewhat preoccupied with bringing Broadway pizzazz and making a spectacle. The constant show-stopping numbers, although entertaining, do little to propel the story along, and the loveable animals with their unique personalities get lost in the ridiculous extravagance of it all. The show ultimately becomes one endless stream of distasteful numbers which stifles any tender or poignant pastoral moments.
Music aside, what I had major problems with was the book, written by Julian Fellowes. There were some enjoyable cheery and jocular moments. However, strangely, there was no moral grounding in this production, which ultimately left Toad remaining odious, thoughtless, entitled, and obnoxious. It’s difficult to enjoy any story where the protagonist is unlikeable and learns nothing. With this, the book fell flat, and left me yearning for a moment of genuine emotion.
The cast, in their perfect embodiment of these riverbank friends, was probably the one redeeming factor of this production. Rufus Hound, who depicted the bumptious, obnoxious, and garish protagonist, Toad, was wildly energetic, tweedy, and mischievous. He lit up the stage, much like his bright green wig, bringing a youthful, spritely, boyishness to the role, which was commendable. Furthermore, the brotherhood between nervous, loyal Mole (Craig Mather), comedic, sardonic Ratty (Simon Lipkin), and wise, trusty Badger (Gary Wilmot), was refreshing as it provided moments of tender and gentle friendship in this over-powering production. Their beautiful performance of ‘A Friend is Still a Friend’ was a true reflection of Graham’s book. However, it is the chorus that steals the show in this production. Following Rachel Kavanaugh’s spectacular direction and Aletta Collin’s choreography, the chorus truly capture the scurrying, crawling, and prowling essence of the riverbank world.
All told, the musical is perfect for the family, providing ridiculous comedy tailored towards children, breath-taking costuming, and eye-catching set-design. However, it is difficult to find a strong personal vision behind this spectacle. The musical had the capacity to depict a beautiful reincarnation of a classic children’s book with poignant moments and a moral. Instead, it has been packaged commercially to wow its audience, and in doing so, the passion and emotion are ultimately lost, and the musical becomes a tasteless pantomime.
Wind in the Willows is available to stream here.
Featured Image Credit: Tristram Kenton