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Interview: When Willows Turn to Wilton’s

Piers Torday on adadpting Wind In The Willows

This winter the wonderful Wilton’s Music Hall is hosting a family production of The Wind in the Willows – wait! No, it’s actually The Wind in the Willows WILTON’S! So maybe a slightly different revival of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel? We thought we’d better have a chat with award-winning writer Piers Torday to find out what we might expect from his adaptation.

Piers, you’ve got a bit of a history with Wilton’s: The Box of Delights was a big hit recently, and now you’re back with another classic story. What is it about the place that appeals to you?

 It’s the oldest working music hall in Britain, and you can tell the moment you step through the door. Theatre history is literally coming out of the walls, and the place casts this incredible spell over audiences. The distressed walls and stone floors make them feel like they are watching a show in the past – even if it’s super contemporary, which is a gift for staging classic and period pieces like Box or Willows.

The hall is always a character in your show, whether you like it or not. It’s a challenge, but give me that any time over a black box…

Many adults know The Wind in the Willows from their childhood, but is it a story that is still fun for today’s young audiences?

I think so. The heart of the story is about friendship, with this quartet of buddies who are the archetypes of so many friendship groups – Mole, the fussy introvert, Rat, the outgoing new friend who is also eager for change, grumpy Badger and of course, the irrepressible, self-obsessed Toad whom they love, despite his faults.

But at the same time, we have brought the story up to date. We’ve relocated it to modern London, mixed up the genders a bit, and dropped all the jolly good Edwardian chaps in waistcoats stuff. (I loved that as a kid, but it was a long time ago, and it’s been adapted in that way so many times.)

These are real animals who live today, with human characteristics and back stories that I think a contemporary, young, diverse London audience will recognise and enjoy watching.

Your novel The Last Wild was published in 14 different countries, so obviously offered a globally resonant story. Are there themes in The Wind in the Willows Wilton’s that will similarly interest a wide family audience?

We can’t escape it. The tragedy is that the animals in Wind in the Willows are under threat, from water voles (Ratty) to various breeds of toads which are going extinct. Not to mention the horrific pollution in our rivers we have seen this year. This is a Christmas show, and we want to entertain people and take them out of their lives, so there will be no doom and gloom but – it’s not a spoiler to say that UK wildlife, countryside and waterways are under threat in our story just as much as they are in reality.

I’m most proud of the fact though that the actual production will be following the Theatre Green Book and will be super sustainable. We are trying to recycle and reuse and use as little new stuff as we possibly can.

There’s an exciting team of cast and creatives on board for this show (I’m looking forward to seeing Corey Montague-Sholay as Mole!), including some actors who’ve done Shakespearean work in the past – no dumbing down for the younger attendees then?

It’s a completely phenomenal cast and creative team, with some very impressive credits. I feel like Christmas has come early!

Making good work for young people, and Christmas shows that whole families – from little children to their grandparents, can all enjoy together, is a serious business in my opinion. I would never condescend to or patronise young audiences, we want to serve them the very best theatre we can make, that is as ambitious and entertaining for all as it is accessible, inclusive and age-appropriate.

And I’m very impressed to see the amazing Samuel Wyer has designed the puppets! I take it these puppets are quite different from those he created for The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

We are so lucky to have Sam! He’s a genius and created amazing puppets for our production of Box of Delights, so I’m really glad he’s come back for this. I think it’s safe to say that these puppets might be a tad less scary than the monsters he made for Ocean, but they are no less spectacular or ingenious. Come and see!

Can you tell us a bit about the music and songs in the show? Have you turned your dexterous hand to songwriting too?

I have, and it’s been a joyful new challenge. Luckily, I’ve had the privilege of working with composer Chris Warner who is so generous and has held my hand on this one… we’re really excited about what we’ve come up with.

It’s not a full-blown musical, but more a play with songs – the original book is actually studded with songs throughout and we wanted to honour that creative choice of the author, Kenneth Grahame. He may even have written a few of the lyrics we’re using himself too…

Thanks very much to Piers for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.

The Wind in the Willows Wilton’s is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall from Thursday 24 November until Saturday 31 December. If you want to get yourself down to the riverbank you can find out more details and how to book here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 16 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry, and being a Super Assessor for the Offies! Mary now insists on being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an award winning MA in London's Theatre and Performance.

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