Review: The Wind in the Willows

A flurry of colour smatters against the brown wood as animals frolic and foreboding strings and reeds welcome us with an unexpected degree of dissonance into the forest world. It is something of an overture - the light and dark contrast, the friendly woodland creatures and frightening stoats and weasels, the pastoral beautifully represented in the sound scape. Alan Bennett’s Wind in the Willows seems to be channeling the Brothers Grimm, mischievously playful, dark yet colourful.

From the off however, the characters brim and sparkle with all of the vibrancy of the novel; Mole froths over with vigour and enthusiasm as he emerges from his burrow to look upon the river-bank for the first time; his marvel is mimicked only by the young audience. Paul Kemp’s camp and verbose Toad steals almost every scene in which he plays, the upright and forthright Ratty serves as foil, as does the delightfully deadpan Badger. The minor characters showcase the wit of Bennett that makes the show the ‘for-all-ages’ experience it is - the beleaguered cart-horse with Marxist pretensions, the Judge bought off with afternoon tea.

©West Yorkshire Playouse

The stage design is effective and elegant; a large wooden burrow sits in the middle of a circular stage, able to rotate and with individual rotating sections encircling it. The speed of the change of set that these rotating circles allows is used to encapsulate the forest’s ever changing mood, shifting between manor grounds and tea parties to the shadowy dangers of the Wild Wood. The stage choreography is laser beam sharp, but never rushed - it wouldn’t be in-fitting with the play’s mellow airs. There are some fine comic touches - oversized paintings of Toad as the Mona Lisa and Napoleon drop down as we enter Toad Hall for the first time, to the delight of the adults and culturally precocious children in the audience.

The narrative is punctuated with short songs, a full band of woodland creatures replete with saxophone’s and bassoons remaining a constant stage presence. The numbers are catchy and clever, folky and perfectly in-fitting with the pastoral, half ethereal nature of the setting, thankfully never falling into the realm of the overly-schmaltzy. The quality of the musicianship deserves mention, providing a perfect aural backing which creates a rich forest-like canopy of its own.

The overall exuberance is able to fly off the stage and the show achieves levels of charm almost impossible to adequately verbalise. Bennett deals in charm; here it is his currency - and what ingredients he has at his disposal - the satire, the setting, the sardonicism disguised as childish whimsy. Looking around, there are a few glum adult faces, owned presumably by those with glum adult hearts. They are missing the treat playing out before their very eyes. Suspend your disbelief and float down the river to Toad Hall this festive season, after all, who doesn’t want a double bass playing Hedgehog in their lives this Christmas?

Wind in the Willows is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 19th January 2013. Tickets available here

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