Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows has been a popular children’s tale for over a century. It’s a story of friendship, collaboration and environmental peril that still resonates today in this delightful reimagining from Piers Torday, Wind in the
Willows Wilton’s. (You can find out more about this in our recent interview with Piers here)
As with the title, nature and sound are put centre stage from the start. Tom Piper’s design fills the space with an impressive tree, stretching beautifully out towards the balconies, whilst below, river reeds edge into this historical venue, connecting the contemporary production with the heritage of the past. A double bass sits prominently, waiting for the music to begin. It’s visually stunning, and sets a scene where nature is prioritised.
This is a talented ensemble cast. Under sharp direction by Elizabeth Freestone they dynamically perform the diverse characters that populate the microcosmic world of the riverbank, singing and playing instruments with polish and pace. Corey Montague Sholay is adorably dorky as poor Mole, made homeless by weasels, and an excellent contrast to the impressively exuberant Darrell Brockis as Toad. Rosie Wyatt’s Ratty is a convincing lynchpin, connecting the friends’ varied narratives with a charmingly affable manner.
Torday’s crafted script beautifully balances a sense of timelessness with modern references. It reminds us of the antiquity of the natural world’s relationship with humans and yet places it firmly as an active part of contemporary life. He intricately weaves text from the original book with new writing. Meanwhile Chris Warner’s sound design seamlessly juxtaposes music from different eras, moving between ancient, folksy a cappella and handbells (very Shakespeare’s Globe!), to rap for Tik Tok and Billy Bragg-style protest songs. It’s all splendidly enjoyable.
Melody Brown excels as the grumpy eco-warrior Badger whose amusing political ranting also contains incisive truths. Her spirited call to action steps beyond the fiction to challenge the audience over their human irresponsibility. Much as this is supported unapologetically by the narrative, it does, along with recurring vocabulary specific to capitalism and consumerism, feel a little too much like lecturing for a family Christmas show. The environmental issues raised fit more comfortably with the story of the riverbank creatures, and it’s interesting that the show has consciously promoted sustainability in its production, extensively reusing and recycling props and costumes.
The gorgeously evocative lighting by Zoe Spurr is thoughtful and varied. It creates a beautiful sense of seasonality, balancing a careful colour palette, brightness and darkness, to manifest the story. At times it transforms entirely, supporting a disco scene, and using spotlights to great effect when a search begins. A brilliant, illuminated drone intrudes on the audience’s airspace: Toad’s irritating behaviour incarnate and lots of fun.
There is some impressive puppetry, designed by Samuel Wyer, when the magnificent tree is animated with the spirit of Pan; perhaps hinting of A Monster Calls but nonetheless strikingly effective. Smaller puppets include a very cute baby otter, who felt a little stiffly performed on the night, although that may loosen up as the run progresses.,
I found it a little difficult to place which audience the show is aimed at. It certainly pleased the largely adult one present, but its very political stance meant the language was often too specialised for a younger age group. There is, however, no denying the appeal of the beautiful staging, fabulous music and charming characterisation.
This is a story of hope, a reminder of the value of the wildlife and countryside around us, and a call to action that says we can all collaborate, no matter how different we are, to build a better future. It’s exuberant, crafted and considered: a feast for the senses this Christmas.
Written by: Piers Torday
Directed by: Elizabeth Freestone
Design by: Tom Piper
Lighting Design by: Zoe Spurr
Composer and Sound Design by: Chris Warner
Movement Direction by: Emma Brunton
Puppetry Design by: Samuel Wyer
The Wind in the Willows Wilton’s plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until 31 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.