The Wind in the Willows is one of the longest-running family Christmas productions in regional theatre – and seeing it for myself, it’s easy to understand why.
What do moles and rats do when spring arrives? Go out for an idyllic boating ride and picnic, of course. “But wait,” I hear you say, “aren’t rowing boats a bit big for a mole and a rat?” Honestly, don’t you know anything? In the early 20th century, moles and ratties and badgers were all human-sized and did human-sized things, mixing with humans and subject to human laws of the land and all that. This, at least, was the premise of Kenneth Grahame’s book, originally meant as a bed-time story and ending up an accidental children’s classic. But the reason the book endures in so many memories is of course our hero, or rather anti-hero. Mr. Toad, the wealthy but vain owner of Toad Hall, is not arrogant as such: simply a flawed individual who is – if you will pardon the mixed metaphor – only human.
This depiction of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad as only human was, perhaps, a driver for Theresa Heskins’ choice of how to bring this to the stage at the New Vic. Plenty of adaptations use make-up or masks to represent the animals – here, however, they are better described as human embodiments of the animals they represent. The ensemble of eleven never have more than a pair of ears or a tail to show which animal they are – and it works. Because this adaptation is not using tweeness as its selling point, but instead, human personalities working and conflicting with each other: Mole, keen to be friends with everyone; Ratty, pragmatic and easy-going; and Badger, the one who knows Mr. Toad best. Mr. Toad, by all rights, ought to be the villain of the piece, throwing lavish parties to big up his own ego, never feel sorry for anyone but himself, always frittering money away on the latest fad – but he’s such an idiot over all this he becomes a lovable idiot, desperately needing his friend to protect him from himself and his new-found love of easily-crashable motor cars.
Theresa Heskins’ script is a good adaptation that has humour on a lot of levels. When Mr. Toad’s horse on his gypsy caravan complains about the unfairness that he still had to be a beast of burden when all the other animals get to do fun human things, it’s funny. When Mr. Toad is locked away by his friends trying to cure him of his motor car addiction, his quiet “poop poop” is both funny and sad. When he escapes to a pub and overhears the couple on the next table talking about their brand new motor car, the look of Mr. Toad’s face is priceless. There is also some funny satire about the justice system in this sleepy part of England. Mr. Toad’s lengthy prison sentence isn’t so much for motor car theft or dangerous driving, but for the far more serious offence of cheeking a Policeman (with the sentence rounded up to twenty years, just because).
But my favourite touch is the Wild Woods scene. Adaptations I’ve seen before typically have a song from the weasels and stoats stating they’re the baddies – here, however, it’s a properly scary scene. This is largely pulled off thanks to Kieran Buckeridge as the arch-villain fox. Stephen Joseph Theatre fans with long enough memories will remember Kieran as one of the key actors from the Chris Monks era, but until now I’ve mostly seen him in comedy roles. For the sake of any concerned parents, I will reassure you at this point that the rabbit he intends to eat for his tea gets away, so your children won’t have nightmares, but the sequences where he captures Mole and Ratty and the terrified rabbit to let them run for a bit of sport is really twisted.
The Wild Woods scene is also one of the most impressive for the scenery, with brown cloth quickly turning into trees. I did wonder whether trees could work in the round, but my family were dotted around the theatre in separate seats and all got good views. In fact, the staging was innovative throughout the play, with the rowing at the beginning being impressive scene. There are quite a lot of stylistic similarities with Around the World in 80 Day, directed by Theresa Heskins, which toured with huge success. This time, she is the writer and dramatist, with Peter Leslie Wild credited as director – I suspect Heskins had a lot of input into the production, but between them and Laura Willstead set design, they deliver a top-notch production. Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical? The songs were perfectly fitting too, thanks to composer Matt Baker.
There are a couple of bits of the script I wasn’t quite convinced by. I felt we lost something from Badger. It doesn’t really matter whether the main characters are male or female in this story, and in this production, where Mole and Badger are female, the characters still work. However, it’s quite important to the story that Badger is a recluse, and a bit of a grouch, because Badger is just about the only person who can make Toad listen. So Badger’s first appearance where she’s welcomed all and sundry into the set didn’t quite fit. I also felt the ending was a bit weak. In the original, Toad reforms, but – in keeping with his earlier incapability of learning lessons – only reforms after a final dressing down. In this, Toad and all the weasels and stoats – including the aforementioned proper evil fox – talk through their differences, agree to all be friends, in time for some passing field mice to come in a sing some carols. I realise this has a target audience of young children, but I’d been looking forward to seeing how they’d so Toad’s Last Little Song, now cut.
Those things, however, are just matters of personal preference which don’t detract from what’s otherwise a fine production. I should probably declare that the version I saw featured a stand-in Mr. Toad with the regular actor ill on the day, but – and this is the thing that impressed me more than anything else – I’d have never have guessed. Matthew Burns swapped his numerous supporting roles for the lead, with the remainder of the cast covering for all his former parts, and it honesty looked like that was how the play had been cast all along. The Wind in the Willows has an unusually long run from a Christmas production of ten weeks, with almost all the weekday performances reserved for school bookings. That must be a hell of a lot of schools in Staffordshire coming to see this, but if the previous productions have been up to the standard of this one, it’s no wonder the New Vic is so popular this time of year.
The Wind in the Willows runs until the 26th January. Performances open to the public are on 7.30 Fridays, and 2.15 and 7.30 Saturdays.