Pros: A stunning score and beautifully-designed stage set, with plenty of visual surprises.
Cons: Love him or loathe him, broadcaster Alan Tichmarsh stars as the narrator, but does not quite have the gravitas of his predecessor.
Will Tuckett’s Olivier award winning adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s tale The Wind in the Willows premièred 12 years ago and continues to prove a popular alternative to panto. This timeless tale of friendly riverbank animals (Toad, Mole, Ratty, Badger and co) brims with artistry, making it one of the classiest family Christmas shows you are likely to see this year. Song, dance and puppetry come together seamlessly, making this production a playful theatrical recreation of Grahame’s pastoral vision of the English countryside.
The show combines Royal Ballet choreography with just a hint of the slapstick (Tuckett), a beautiful orchestral score (Martin Ward) and comical animal puppetry (designed by Toby Olie). The dusty attic set (designed by the Quay brothers) is a treasure trove of visual interest for children, where with a little imagination an old wardrobe and rocking horse transforms into a gypsy caravan. An upturned chair is used to make a prison cell for the wayward toad, and inventive costuming and lighting bring the wild wood adventures and riverbank scenes to life.
This year gardening legend Alan Titchmarsh makes his west end début, taking over from Sir Tony Robinson in the role of author Kenneth Grahame. Narrating throughout, he takes a step aside to allow the mostly mute Royal Ballet dancers Sonya Cullingford (Mole), Martin Harvey (Ratty), Ira Mandela Siobhan (Badger) and Cris Penfold (Toad) to take centre stage.
Titchmarsh gives a warm-hearted performance as Grahame but though non-threatening and as cosy as a doremouse himself, he lacks much of the gravitas that comes from theatrical training.
As Cullingford’s timorous mole rolls out from an old rug, Titchmarsh narrates the season’s changes with the dawning of the summer. The riverbank comes to life with tea-cosy hat ducks, and with the unfurling of a simple blue cloth to represent the tide. We meet the rather dashing Ratty (played with Errol Flynn style aplomb by Harvey), messing about on the river in his comically tiny boat. Pipe-smoking badger is the wise and courageous leader of the group who steers them out of trouble (played with an air of stern coolness by Siobhan). Then there’s the lovable eccentric toad of Toad Hall, the manic motorcar fiend whose frenzied behaviour gets him in a spot of hot water with the police. Penfold’s toad springs, bounds and trills with energy across the stage. The exuberant joyfulness of the choreography really comes into its own during his motorcar scenes. A comical highlight is the prison scene where Toad, rescued by the warden’s daughter (played like a class act panto dame by Ewan Wardrop), engages in a fake courtship dance in order to secure his escape. The punk rock weasels add a contemporaneous touch to proceedings, with their spiked mullets, upturned jeans and grisly swagger.
The ghoulish wild wood animal puppets, combined with fake snow interlude, plenty of laughs and choral singing, make this the perfect family friendly show to add a touch of class to your Christmas. The intimate and hospitable surroundings of the Vaudeville theatre lend themselves well to family performances. A must see.
Director: Will Tuckett
Choreographer: Will Tuckett
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7304 4000
Box Link: http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/the-wind-in-the-willows-by-will-tuckett?gclid=CNH11YGjtMICFQ6WtAodYzkARQ
Booking Until: 17th Jan 2015