“Messing about in a boat"
Messrs Stiles, Drewe and Fellowes clearly have an affinity for working with each other as hot on the heels of Half A Sixpence, about to open in West End after a successful run in Chichester, comes another collaboration on a musical version of The Wind in the Willows. Destined for an as yet unconfirmed West End residency, it is currently touring from Plymouth to Salford and then on to Southampton, spreading its gentle, pastoral charms across the UK.
And its charms are gentle, befitting any iteration of the beloved children's novel by Kenneth Grahame. Julian Fellowes' adaptation is faithful to that story and though the scale of Rachel Kavanaugh's production is suitably large, it is also refreshingly simple. Peter McKintosh's design is atmospheric but uncomplicated, playful rather than epic in its idyllic evocation of the British countryside, ably assisted by Aletta Collins' languid choreography.
The story begins in springtime (with the epic opener 'Spring', available to listen to here) as the inquisitive Mole goes exploring and on seeing the river for the first time ever, meets the kindly Rat. Their friendship is the bedrock of the show and is beautifully essayed by a (native) Northern Irish-accented Fra Fee and Thomas Howes - along with David Birrell's seasoned Badger, their 'A Friend Is Still A Friend' stays the right of schmaltz to become genuinely affecting.
The nominal star of the show is of course Toad, and he gets an appropriately brash performance from Rufus Hound, musically more contemporary than his compatriots in a rather adroit touch. His legal problems and dispossession of Toad Hall at the hands of the weasels, stoats and foxes aka The Wild Wooders (led by Neil McDermott's wideboy Chief Weasel) are dynamic and vibrantly staged, Kavanaugh and co have clearly taken pains to avoid ever seeming too twee.
My favourite aspect of the show was the seasonal interludes. Structurally, they could be seen as problematic, essentially stopping the story to allow little cameos from some Andrews Sisters-esque swallows ('One Swallow Does Not A Swallow Make'), some humbug-loving mice ('The Wassailing Mice) and most memorably of all, the adorable hedgehog family (The Hedgehog's Nightmare), but they're done with such charm that they're easily forgiven, especially when the latter rhyme 'prickle' with 'vehicle'!
If I were to pick at anything, it would be the same issue that arose for me in Half A Sixpence with the lack of substantial roles for women. One might argue that the problem lies in the source material but given that these are adaptations, I don't understand why more of an effort isn't being made by the creatives to redress the balance. Here, Otter becomes Mrs Otter (an excellent Sophia Nomvete), but that still means only one of the six main characters is played by a woman and if we're constantly looking back for inspiration for big new musicals, how else will things ever change (see also race, sexuality, disability...).
That small cavil aside, The Wind in the Willows sees Stiles and Drewe, and indeed Fellowes, well within their comfort zone of the halcyon days of a storybook past, and they do a sterling job of it too. Rachel Kavanaugh's astute direction gives it enough of an edge to keep it from being too Sunday-afternoon traditional, thus hopefully helping it to break through to the wider appeal it will need in a tough West End market. And if it is Hound taking the final bow, you can be sure it is the gorgeous warmth of Fra Fee's Mole that denotes a leading man career in the ascendancy. Poop poop indeed!
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Booking until 22nd October; then touring to The Lowry, Salford Quays; and Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, ahead of the to-be-announced West End transfer