London Theatre Review: Wind in the Willows

Date Posted: 30/06/2017

Rufus Hound as Mr Toad

Fast-paced, hilarious and heart-warming, the adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic is full of delight. GLT's Keeley Rodgers reviews the new musical at London’s Palladium Theatre.

The adventures of best friends Mole and Ratty, the infamous Mr Toad of Toad Hall, the mystery of the Wild Wood; it's no wonder that the Wind in the Willows continues to capture the imagination. Like so many, I have fond childhood memories of the characters from the book and so couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see the new musical adaptation – a collaboration between Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Any nervousness about how Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved childhood classic, first written for his son in 1908, would translate on to the stage at London’s Palladium Theatre was gone within seconds of the curtain raising.  In from a very wet night in the capital, the audience was soon warmed up as the beloved animals came out from their winter hideaways for the start of spring. It didn’t take long for the delight of discovering the characters as a child to come flooding back.

Gary Wilmot, Denise Welch, Rufus Hound, Simon Lipkin and Craig Mather star in The Wind in the Willows. Credit: Darren Bell

Gary Wilmot as Badger, Denise Welch as Mrs Otter, Rufus Hound as Toad and Simon Lipkin as Ratty. Credit: Darren Bell.

The show began as the night was to end; full of surprises. A very charismatic Ratty (Simon Lipkin) regrettably informed us that the award-winning Rufus Hound had a frog in his throat (yes) and unfortunately couldn't perform. He was, however, completely spot on when he joked that if we squinted enough, his understudy Chris Aukett (who normally plays the engine driver) looks much like the loveable Rufus; the similarities were uncanny.  What we weren't quite prepared for though, was his unstoppable performance.

If speed is the epitome of Mr Toad, Aukett went full throttle, 100mph, taking his audience on the journey of a lifetime. Taking to the character like a duck to water, Aukett’s performance was delightful – funny, buffoonish yet loveable. His reckless and ‘mad professor’- like Mr Toad was one of many highlights of the show. We were taken in by the opulence of Toad Hall and the extravagant, yet at times vulnerable, green figure – at one point hilariously dressed in the clothes of washer woman. Without giving too much away, there are cars aplenty – to feed Toad’s need for speed – barges, trains and of course that not-so-great escape as justice catches up with his misdemeanours.

Craig Mather (Mole) and Simon Lipkin (Ratty). Credit: Darren Bell.
Craig Mather (Mole) and Simon Lipkin (Ratty). Credit: Darren Bell.

There are too many notable performances to mention – it was delight after delight – surprise after surprise. Even the baddies, the sinister wild wooders, led by the incredible Neil McDermott as chief weasel, blew the audience away. And then there’s the duo of the night – our favourite Mole, played by Craig Mather, and his partner in crime Ratty. The show opened with the duo ‘messing about on the river’ in the delightful ‘My Oh My’ boat, making ripples across the water, graced by the simple willows.

Seeing their bond grow throughout the story is truly heart-warming and the pair also gave us what was possibly the funniest moment of the production. Let’s just say one of Mole’s very ‘valuable keepsakes’ didn’t last for longer than his song about them! Holding the mishap together beautifully, they had the audience stitches, and it was nothing a quick dustpan and brush couldn’t fix.

From rapturous laughter, to sadness and admiration, the quintessentially British musical takes you on your own journey, whether you’re eight or 80. And while still true to the original story, the adaptation tackles so many issues more relevant than ever. Whether it’s the mother-daughter relationship between the very talented Denise Welch (Mrs Otter) and Emilie Du Leslay (Portia), who is always getting up to mischief or the long-lasting friendships of many of the characters despite their trials and tribulations. After all, “a friend is still a friend”.

The story is original, the set is simple and stunning, the costumes are enchanting and the cast are truly unforgettable.  I haven’t even mentioned the hedgehog family who delight us with their tales of dodging traffic and popping balloons with their spikes, or the field mice who got the biggest applause of the evening for their carol singing.

Neil McDermott (Chief Weasel) and Company. Credit: Darren Bell
Neil McDermott (Chief Weasel) and Company. Credit: Darren Bell.

It’s so much more than a trip down memory lane, it’s a triumph in its own right, with incredible staging, choreography and music. Opening and closing in spring, the story goes full-circle, just as we had been on the journey of a timeless classic.

If imagination saved the day for Mr Toad and his friends, heroically battling to recapture Toad Hall from the rule of the ‘Weaselz’, the musical has bought so many adventures back to life for people of all ages – there was something for everyone.

As a young man once wrote, more than 100 years ago, “believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”  And there was no better way to escape for two and a half hours, a triumph for the imagination.

Heading back out into the rain, covered in green streamers (I won’t spoil the ending), we left full of the magic that Kenneth Grahame created so long ago. It’s fair to say that the sparkling new musical will ensure the wonder lives on. One not to be missed…poop poop!

Group rates for Wind in the Willows are available (for groups of 10+) for Monday to Thursday evening performances and Tuesday matinees. Rates for groups of 20+ are also available for Stalls & Royal Circle. To book call the box office 0844 8740665 or visit windinthewillowsthemusical.seetickets.com

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