Latest Review – The Wind In The Willows [The Lowry, Salford Quays]

[David Birrel as Badger, Thomas Howes as Ratty and Fra Fee as Mole in The Wind in the Willows. Photo by Marc Brenner. ® Jamie Hendry Productions]


The Lowry, Salford Quays

Until Saturday 6th November, 2016

A true icon of children’s literature, Kenneth Grahame’s evocative 1908 classic has delighted generations of readers with its adventurous (and often misadventurous) tale of anthropomorphic animals in a pastoral Thames Valley in turn-of-the-Century, Edwardian England.

Having been adapted for the stage on numerous occasions over the years, The Wind in the Willows is now once again given the full-scale musical treatment courtesy of writer Julian Fellowes, composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, an acclaimed trio who count Betty Blue Eyes, Mary Poppins, Honk!, Half a Sixpence, Downton Abbey and Gosford Park amongst their combined credits.

The rather simplistic plot centres around the friendship and adventures that develop between the naive and mild-mannered Moley, the cultured and intellectual Ratty and the wealthy, conceited Mr. Toad, the current owner of the lavish Toad Hall mansion. When the thrill-seeking Mr. Toad’s self-destructive obsession with motor cars lands him a hefty 20-year prison sentence, riverbankers Ratty and Moley must venture deep into the ominous Wild Wood and recruit the aid of the wise, solitary Mr. Badger to save their unjustly imprisoned friend and fight off the antagonistic weasels and stoats that have taken over the vacant Toad Hall.

Structurally the show feels very similar to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in the fact that the musical numbers establish and enhance individual characters but generally don’t move the plot forward. There are some lovely songs in the piece – notably A Place To Come Back To (Moley’s poignant ode to his cosy home), A Friend Is Still A Friend, the brilliant The Hedgehog’s Nightmare and the joyous Act One opener Spring (which notably pays homage to Honk!‘s opening number A Poultry Tale), but many of them feel more like filler tracks and tend to cover much of the same ground. That said, Anthony Drewe’s lyrics are always of a very high standard and here is no different, with the many instances of ingenious Gershwin-like wordplay perfectly complementing Stiles’ bristling and beautifully orchestrated melodies.

Whilst the gentle first act is used primarily as a means to establish characters and locations, not a lot really happens, and the energetic second act feels much more dynamic in its structure and pacing. For the musical theatre aficionados in the audience, there are a number of in-jokes and references to other musical works scattered throughout the piece so do be on the lookout; Mr. Toad’s prison number ‘TOAD4601’ (a reference to Valjean’s ‘24601’ prison number in Les Miserables) must be one of the most inspired.

With a running time of 2-hours and 40-minutes, the musical is a little too long given the target audience in mind, and with an 80-minute first act, many of the young children were beginning to get very restless and fidgety around the 1-hour mark.

There is definitely scope for a more ambitious approach, and though the potential is huge, unfortunately some of the opportunities are never quite realised as effectively as might be hoped. Refreshingly however, the production moves well away from the the high-tech, big-budget visuals many shows rely on, instead incorporating rather simplistic designs that put the material and performances firmly at the forefront.

Simplistic thought they may be, Peter McKintosh’s costume and set designs are quite brilliant, with the layered, spherical arch design lending a sort of fisheye effect as we gaze through the lens of the proscenium arch. The revolving stage cleverly serves as a multipurpose arena as Toad Hall and the various bridges and animal homes are wheeled on an off, brilliantly capturing that sense of cosiness, innocence and nostalgia found in the novel.

Though the show honours the traditional Edwardian designs – as seen in the architecture, costumes and the vehicles Mr. Toad drives around –  the contemporary, hip-hop choreography and beats weaved in and out don’t quite sit right. The intention is of course to bring things up to date and make the show more appealing to a younger audience, but it is in stark contrast to the rest of the production and just doesn’t work. The choreography in general feels very weak and doesn’t add much to the action. It seems a shame to have Abigail Brodie and Courtney Bowman as Mr. Toad’s carriage horses both wearing tap shoes and only allowing them to demonstrate a few seconds of tap ability; certainly room for development there.

Rufus Hound is the main audience draw here as the mischievous Mr. Toad – looking like some sort of cross between a Mad Professor and The Wizard of Oz with his bushy moustache, big spectacles, green tweed suit and wave of unkempt emerald hair – and he does a great job in the role. Admittedly his vocals are not the strongest, but he’s a perfect choice for the role, energetically driving much of the humour and affably bounding across the stage in full One Man, Two Guvnors mode. Fra Fee does great work as the wide-eyed Moley as does David Birrell as the strong, authoritative Mr. Badger, however Thomas Howes is the star man here, turning in a outstanding perfomance as the cultured, river-loving Ratty.

Yes there are issues that need ironing out and tightening up before the inevitable West End transfer, but that said it’s a warm, happy and quintessentially British slice of new musical theatre (always great to see); the perfect tonic for the cold Autumnal nights.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.

Final Performance at The Lowry, Salford Quays: Saturday 6th November, 2016

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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