Friday, 30 June 2017

Review The Wind In The Willows

The Wind In The Willows
A musical based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame
Book by Julian Fellowes
Music by George Stiles
Lyrics by Anthony Drewe

Country Diary Of An Edwardian Banker

During the halcyon days of TLT's childhood, the sun shone forever above the ancient horse chestnut tree and dappled with its rays the parish school windows where the thrushes on the sill with throbbing breasts warbled their little hearts out.

Then the kindly schoolmaster took down from the wooden shelf The Wind In The Willows and read in rich and vivid tones a fresh instalment of life on the river bank to a rapt young audience.

The boys were dressed in caps and shorts and the girls in their gingham pinafores, all in a classroom comradeship with little Theresa and Jeremy clutching each other's small hands for comfort when the story took a darker turn.

Ok, ok that was almost complete fantasy ;)

However TLT's teacher did read a chapter a day at her state primary school. For hard as it is to imagine in our time of invasive weaselly mobile phones and computers, we  lapped up nourishing literary meals with Mole, Ratty and Badger while Toad, we thought, had a kinship with our own cheeky "naughtiest boy in the class".

Now a jolly musical version of Kenneth Grahame's classic, with music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe and book by Julian Fellowes, has brought the fight to preserve the status quo between the river bank and the Wild Woods on to the London Palladium stage.

Green fronds descend as the river bank comes to life on Peter McKintosh's ingenious tree ring set filled with concentric wooden circles for the rural landscape in contrast to the expressionist Toad Hall decorated with Louis XVI decadence and attended to by long-eared white rabbit flunkeys.

Craig Mather and Simon Lipkin make an engaging bespectacled West Country mole and streetwise water rat respectively - although somehow we realise their personas know their way around a mobile phone.

Julian Fellowes' book is pretty good and more or less faithful to the source material.

Yet there's a brisk modern slickness to director Rachel Kavanagh's staging which doesn't reflect the deeper resonance of the novel and its recognition of seasonal change and sense of troubling undercurrents.

Grahame himself had previously worked as Secretary to the Bank Of England where he was the victim of a bizarre assassination attempt. Not long after he took early retirement and wrote his most famous book which became a success after President Theodore Roosevelt was given a copy and lobbied for its publication.     

Maybe it was deemed too soon, hot on the heels of the Stiles/Drewe/Fellowes additions to Half A Sixpence (although the river bank musical was written first) to style the show as purely Edwardian. So there's also a 1950s and 1960s vibe sometimes reminiscent of the Ealing Studio comedies.

We have pencil-skirted air hostess swallows, even if the soprano trills of One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make are pleasingly from an earlier era.  The garish chief weasel (an excellent Neil McDermott) is a mid twentieth century spiv, surely Soho-based with his continental taste for pizza?

This takes somewhat away from the strange mix found in Grahame's tale and the drawings of the novel's most celebrated illustrator Ernest H Shepherd and into the realms of Disney.

While we wish there was a little more adventurousness and lateral thinking as to how to invoke and evoke the atmosphere of the novel with its thread of the supernatural, unease and potential savagery  in the costuming and staging, if we didn't know the book, we would accept the musical on its own terms.

Gary Wilmot is the stern Badger, with the tartan tie of a Laird but the authoritative English accent of a retired military man  of course has a fine set of lungs introducing a thematic, if somewhat all-purpose song, A Friend Is Still A Friend.

There are times when we wondered if we were on the threshhold of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat and Beatrix Potter tales but, sadly, never quite the weirdness of Grahame's Edwardian literary soulmate in mysticism, Saki.

But wait a moment, why are the headlights of TLT's automotive companion all a-gleam? Any adaptation of The Wind In The Willows must stand or fall by that prolix, blustering, egotistical but loveable road hog (to mix our animal metaphors) Mr Toad of Toad Hall.

Rufus Hound revs up and swings into action and gives good value as the menace on four wheels. It's all pretty efficient and the children seemed to love it (we asked a few in a post-show totally unscientific straw poll).

For us Kenneth Grahame's novel still colonizes our imagination.We did wonder if its conjuring up of a pastoral benevolently feudal river bank where mole and vole know their place with their homely unmortgaged holes might be enough for some to cheer on the weasels and the stoats in their attempted coup.

Nevertheless we were suckers for the prickly but endearing family of Baden Powell scouting hedghogs threatened by the motor car with a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan in The Hedgehog's Nightmare  and the delightful field mice with cute traditional wassailing chorals.

A friend is still a friend and a colourful and gently entertaining show is still an amber/green light show! 

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