The Wind in the Willows: The Panto!

It’s another one! An actual review of an actual live performance, and this time I don’t have to travel to Brighton for it! Theatre is, as you have probably gathered by now, thin on the ground. Although performances are now permitted, most theatres show little enthusiasm for either outdoor performances or indoor socially distanced performance, preferring instead to do online work. However, Middlesbrough Council has opted to buck the trend, with a few performances scheduled in outdoor venues they own. Unlike The Warren Outdoors diving straight into two months of back-to-back performances, Middlesbrough Council is being cautious; it only scheduled three performances, but judging how well tickets sold and how well-received the performances have been so far, it looks like they could have been a lot bolder. Indeed, The Wind in the Willows was supposed to be a single performance, but thanks to popular demand a second one was quickly added.

And so, I find myself giving the verdict for Immersion Theatre’s adaptation. The last adaptation I saw was the New Vic’s, which I liked for its drift between summer whimsy and a properly scary version of the Wild Woods. This version, I quickly discovered, goes for panto mode from start to finish. Now, I have previously been sniffy about “panto-quality humour”, but only because this style can be used as cover for formulaic writing and predictable jokes. Panto humour can work, but the number one rule is that you must be clear this is what your going for.

Writer/director James Tobias doesn’t muck about here. After the opening musical number of Mole and Ratty, scene two gives us the first appearance of wicked Weasel, hammed up as the pantomime villain. Booing is encouraged, and just in case anyone is still in doubt as to the genre, “Oh no I didn’t / Oh yes you did” comes into scene three to settle the argument. Toad’s song of “Who’s the Toad? You’re the toad!” draws in the audience further; meanwhile the humour is mostly groaners, with Weasel’s song about living of “Weaselly Street” being the sort of thing to expect. But rather than indulging in the usual mistake of building up one gag at a time such that the audience sees it a mile off, it’s one groaner after another faster than you can see them coming. As it should be.

Strangely enough, they manage to do this whilst staying broadly faithful to the story. For The Wind In The Willows to work, Toad has to be a sympathetic character – even though he’s complete narcissist who’s the architect of his own downfall, there has to be something about his childish naivety to win us over. That is not forgotten here. Master-villain weasel plays a bigger part in setting Toad up with his run-in with the officers of the Law (because, of course, in panto rules, any attempt to trick another characters must be i: so obvious a five-year-old could see it coming and ii: successful every time regardless). No gaoler’s daughter to rescue Toad this time round – evidently the authorities have finally wised up and insisted on daughterlessness for all gaolers – but that bridged in the ploy with some good old-fashioned English corruption.

The cast of five give this play the high-energy performance it deserves, and the set and music work perfectly for a show of this scale. One small criticism I have of the ad-hoc venue (the picnic area of Coulby Newham Leisure Farm) is that the trees got in the way of the view – and I’m sure that could have been avoided – but that’s not the fault of the performers. It’s fair to say this play works on fewer levels than more ambitious takes such as the New Vic’s, but for the level it’s aimed at: a fun performance primarily aimed at children, there’s little more I could ask for.

Here’s the strange bit though: this was originally a successful tour back in 2017, and if I’d seen it back then, I probably would have just said that it is what it is and left it at that. In the upheaval of 2020, however, I think Immersion Theatre have accidentally delivered more than they bargained for. One reason why this was such an ideal pick is the timing – with the vast majority of audience at the moment seeing their first play since lockdown, of course they’re going to want something fun. The other reason I think this is important is an upcoming gap in the market, and that gap is panto season proper.

As most of you will be aware by now, panto season is taking a major hammering. Almost all theatres have dropped their original plans for Christmas 2020. I think there’s little doubt that a normal pantomime season is unworkable – they are the biggest-scale undertakings most theatres take on all year; and whilst it’s not impossible social distancing restrictions will be lifted in time, no-one is going to willingly make the investment months in advance with such poor prospects of returns. In a Christmas season that works to “bigger is better” – biggest casts, bigger names, bigger production budgets – it’s just not doable.

But – wait a second – who says we have to stick to “bigger is better”? It’s exactly productions like this that prove you don’t need this. There’s no chorus of dancers, the production budget is tiny, and none of the cast are X Factor finalists, but judging by the audience reaction, this was just as much fun as anything the big theatres normally offer. The difference is that productions like this don’t need the guarantee of huge audiences to be viable – a small audience like this one is enough to make it worthwhile. A minority of theatres have recognised this and filled their vacated Christmas slots with small productions that will be fine with a small audience. Most are leaving their doors closed, and that I think is a wasted opportunity.

So come on theatres, this is the opportunity you are missing. You can put on a great show on a faction of your normal budget and people will come. And, if you don’t know what to do – well, why don’t you sign up this lot? There’s a ready-made show there for you.

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