Review: The Wind in the Willows - Vaudeville Theatre

Performance: 4 December 2014 - 17 January 2015
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Wednesday 10 December 2014

Cris Penfold and the cast of 'The Wind in the Willows', Vaudeville Theatre.  Photo: Johan Persson.

Performance reviewed: 5 December

With the Christmas countdown comes the annual slew of festive shows pitched as ‘family friendly,’ yet often underestimating ‘minors’ by serving up sugarcoated entertainment without the stuffing. Personally, with two children at different stages, both in age and ability, The Wind in the Willows, Will Tuckett’s theatre dance creation originating from the Royal Opera House bridges the gap for me beautifully.

Deservedly in its 12th year and second run in the West End with a new home this season at the Vaudeville Theatre – an atmospheric, if not slightly compromising space for the dancers – this subtle piece covers all bases. It’s sweet without being too saccharine, provocative and thoughtful – with a sonorous text adapted by Andrew Motion – yet there’s still much frivolous fun and hilarity embodied in the dancing animal characters, and admirable balletic movement buried deep into the choreographic code. Oh and there’s puppets too.

Tuckett says he was drawn to Kenneth Grahame’s book, written in 1908, because of its “melancholy, a lament for a gentler England” and this sense of nostalgia ripples throughout every aspect of the production. The action is sensitively offset by a thoughtful toy box of musty looking props from set design duo, The Quay Brothers including a rocking horse, a grandfather clock and an armchair with plaid rug to build the attic space that Tuckett dreamt up- the place where sits “the shadows of nostalgia of childhood,” he says.

Themes of Edwardian nostalgia for England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ are echoed by way of a narrator played this season by Alan Titchmarsh, who successfully carries off a grandfatherly vocal presence- and a framework that guides children through the performance who might otherwise become confused by some of its more obscure moments. While the folk inspired musical score, written by Martin Ward, drawing on the works of First World War composer, George Butterworth further injects the atmosphere of a lost world.

But for all the gravity of the narration, and at times it’s quite heavy, there’s some genuinely rip-roaring nuggets of performance – with masterful studies of the animals of Grahame’s world. Special mentions to tentative, but adorable Mole, (Sonya Cullingford) and the pumped-up green-haired checked trousered Toad, (Cris Penfold), who bounds around in an almost drug-infused frenzy, causing havoc with his automobile strapped around his waist, threatening to destroy the pastoral idyll. Toad, at once admired for his energetic charm yet at the same time feared for his love of the automobile is “smashing England in the heart,” booms the narrator, in a clear message that here is a fragile world under threat and teetering on the edge of change.

Also noteworthy are the hilarious gang of weasels in a scene lifted straight from Grease, decked out in leathers and slicked back hair-all gyrating hips as these pawing sneaky creatures are reincarnated as 50s Teddy Boys to dominate and tease Mole.

What makes this production so enjoyable is the ease with which it switches from the serious to the quirkily comic, which is as much embedded in the detailed costume design (Nicky Gillibrand) as in the dancing and action. Playful animals bound around perfectly at ease in bonnets with hand-knitted ducks perched on top (- surely snatched from a stall of a village fete?) bunny rabbit ears, checked trousers all lend a vintage and slightly dog-eared feel to the performance- while tones of browns, greys and mustards dominate rather than garish brightness commonly associated with kids Christmas fare. It feels a bit like a book that’s been left outside to spoil, yellowing pages but still holding magic.

As Tuckett says “The Wind in the Willows moves with the seasons and doesn’t scream “Christmas” the way the Nutcracker does.” Yet when torch-shining carol singers filter into the audience flicking their lights like excited fireflies around the dark auditorium – and the dump of machine generated ‘snow’ flurries down to the stalls, covering heads in a white dusting as if the ceiling of the theatre itself had opened to embrace the night sky, then Christmas cheer is certainly upon us – quite literally.

So here’s the thing. At no point did anyone glaze over or ask for an ice-cream pre-interval and while the pace is driven by a hand holding narrative, the action encourages the surreal to creep in, allowing children to develop their own imaginative romp through the pastures of the play – no mean feat.

Don’t go to The Wind in the Willows expecting a ballet, play or a Christmas show, but more a pleasant dip in the river of Kenneth Grahame’s beautifully revived tale that will appeal across the generations whether it’s bringing to life familiar well loved characters or introducing them for the first time.

Continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 17 January

Rachel Nouchi is a freelance journalist in the second year of an MA – Movement Direction: Teaching – at Central School of Speech and Drama.

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