Review: The Wind in the Willows - Linbury Studio Theatre

Performance: 17 December - 5 January 2013
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 17 December 2012

Cris Penfold as Toad and Sam Archer as Badger in Will Tuckett's 'The Wind in the Willows' Photo: Johan Persson

The Wind in the Willows is a curious choice of source material for a ballet. Much of the pleasure in the book by Kenneth Grahame is the clever and gentle language, the descriptions and voices of the characters. But owing to the enduring nature of the story of animal friends Ratty, Mole and Badger by the riverbank, the madcap adventures of their thrill seeking amphibious pal Mr Toad – and also to this production’s quirky, Victorian Gothic sensibility and exuberant performances; this is a sweet, smiley winter warmer of a show with all the personality and well-worn appeal of the original tale intact. This is the tenth anniversary of Will Tuckett’s version, which includes set designs by the Quay Brothers and music by Martin Ward in the style of Edwardian composer George Butterworth.

You wouldn’t necessarily think of little old mole, essentially the anthropomorphisation of a little old man, being played by a slight and willowy young ballerina. Bundled up appropriately in tweed and a muffler, Clemmie Sveaas pulls it off with sincerity. Mole’s endearing delight in the company of his friends and his doddering inquisitiveness expressed through compact but precise leaps for joy and light, skittering, staccato footwork. Throughout the piece there is this seamless and easy play between characterisation and technique. Ballet forms and steps get dynamic coloration to provide character detail as when Badger’s (Sam Archer) extended leg and nimble hop becomes a military march and a thudding stomp.

Most of the show was so darn charming that one just grinned steadily throughout, but notes of guffawing hilarity were also struck, especially by Cris Penfold’s gaping and manic Mr Toad. Penfold cuts a tiny figure with a green hairstyle somewhere between a foppish pompadour and a granny do, that he wiggles around at the top of his neck. He opens and closes his mouth in hyper froggy fashion as Toad runs riot in his motorcar and wages turf war to win back his Manor, all danced with wacky finesse. It’s like Mr Toad as a deranged and ballet dancing Golden Girl. Another laugh-out-loud bit was Luke Heydon’s buxom and obliging Gaoler’s daughter fumbling and braying in a star-crossed romance with Toad whom she helps to escape.

The classic children’s tale lends itself surprisingly well to this affectionate balletic treatment, especially inside Ward’s score which immediately invokes an English countryside and the babbling brook of gentle country life. This being the fourth revival in ten years, The Wind in the Willows will hopefully continue to be a regular seasonal favourite.

Continues in Linbury Studio Theatre until 5 January 2013

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