The Wind In the Willows
29 June 2017
The Wind in the Willows at the Palladium is a bit of an oxymoron in and of itself; Designer Peter McKintosh does little to evoke the gentle idyll of the English countryside of Kenneth Grahame’s classic story, preferring to present this juggernaut musical with a huge spiralling tree ring and precisely spaced willows hanging clinically over the cavernous space. Rachel Kavanaugh directs a slick and jovial show with hummable earworms by reliable music and lyrics duo Stiles and Drewe and the company throw everything at this evening that children and adults will certainly adore. In such sumptuous surroundings, it’s hard to be charming, an essential component of this familiar tale, but I really enjoyed myself and saw more than a few children kneeling up on their seats totally engrossed so I think the creative team and cast can rest easy knowing they more than cracked it.
The opening number ‘Spring’ starts with fireworks as we meet the riverbank natives, family by family. (A special mention must go to the hilariously costumed health and safety conscious hedgehogs who received the biggest cheer of the evening.) We’re introduced to Ratty and Moley as they mess about in boats, a real one obviously- this is the Palladium after all. Producer Jamie Hendry wrote that this production aimed to celebrate the joy of friendship and the bromance between Simon Lipkin and Craig Mather is certainly there. Lipkin is somewhat short-tempered and sardonic, eternally exasperated by Mather’s naivety although much of their dialogue is given to explication. Indeed, I wondered how much Julian Fellowes, the book writer, contributed to the production in truth, since text was so sparsely squeezed between the succession of catchy numbers. Joining their trio, Gary Wilmot makes an imposing and believably militaristic Badger.
Next to meet is Mr Toad played with ebullience by panel show regular Rufus Hound. He’s certainly enthusiastic and his joy at playing Toad and leading in this iconic venue is evident. The lurid green hair and moustache crown his zany and pompous performance, although I wanted to see some more toad and bounce in his gesture. Truly, the only performance that managed to convey a believable animal physicality and consistent characterisation was Neil McDermott as the villainous Chief Weasel. Played as an East End gangster, his voice and movement were exceptional whilst his sneering and fitful Weasel enjoyed the most meaningful character arc in the show. Another notable performance is that of Natalie Woods as the Horse who suffers under Toad’s initial fixation with caravans, she tap-dances with glee and sings delightfully during the strongest number ‘The Open Road’. Denise Welch was in it.
There are loads of entertaining ideas in this production: synchronised swimming otters, gay co-parenting bunnies, a lovely montage in the court room and the most astonishing train getaway, but I wonder whether these days people are tired of forgiving the “foibles” and “quirks” of their aristocratic overlords. In a world of Boris and Grenfell, is laughing at those who are selfish and conceited beyond redemption because they wear tweed and shout “poop poop” feeling a bit thin? Julian Fellowes has made a career of feeding us beautiful rich people in aspirational elegant houses but a by-product of that has lead us to a country that is perhaps as socially divided as a hundred years ago. Saying that, I genuinely laughed at Drewe’s mischievous lyrics and was swept away by Stiles’s lavish score conducted impeccably by Tony Higgins. I have no doubt that this show will be well attended and amuse many. This Willows is wacky, magnificent and leaves you on a high, but it does not charm.
Take a look at more production photos from The Wind In The Willows