Friday, 14 July 2017

The Wind In The Willows

Julian Fellowes’ take on the much-loved tale of Toad and his friends provides unabashed entertainment

Written by Richard Barber

It’s got a book by Julian Fellowes. It’s got catchy tunes by George Stiles, well-matched by Anthony Drewe’s clever lyrics (wait till you hear howRichard-Barber-colour-176 ‘prickle’ can rhyme with ‘vehicle’). It’s got rock solid performances. It’s got snappy choreography and witty costumes. It’s well-upholstered, bordering on lavish. And, under Rachel Kavanaugh’s deft direction, it goes at a real lick.

So there’s much indeed to savour in the new version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a solid, safe interpretation of a much loved classic set to music.

Does it break new ground? In truth, no. Is it something to which the whole family can be taken without fear of the air being turned blue, two-and-a-half hours of unapologetic entertainment? Unquestionably, yes.

Everyone knows the story. Self-important speed merchant Toad is always looking for the next form of transport in which he can show off to his neighbours before writing it off in a crash.

He’s the bane of his long-suffering friends, Mole and Ratty, who finally enlist the help of Badger in an attempt to save Toad from himself.

It all goes wrong when he steals a deluxe sports car and lands up in jail, giving the wicked Weasel and his cohorts carte blanche to take over Toad Hall, capturing along the way the fragrant Portia (beloved daughter of Mrs Otter) and a creature apparently destined for the cooking pot.

This being a musical, it is inevitably broader than Alan Bennett’s exquisite version at the National Theatre in the early Nineties. But it’s a lot of fun and very well performed. Denise Welch, a better actress than she is a singer, gets two roles – the Geordie Mrs Otter and the Mancunian Barge Woman – and sinks her teeth into both.

Neil McDermott, best known as shifty Ryan in EastEnders, is a revelation as the slimy Chief Weasel. Gary Wilmot brings real gravitas to the role of Badger and his singing is effortlessly good. Craig Mather does just as well in the more challenging part of timid Mole, his second-half solo, A Place to Come Back to, one of the show’s highlights. And Rufus Hound gives a rollicking reading of two-dimensional Toad. Look out for his ultimate airborne entrance – a real coup de théâtre.

The evening’s honours go to Simon Lipkin as Ratty. He has a commanding stage presence and a fine voice, but it is his ability to find humour – a quizzical look here, a shrug of the shoulder there – that provides the best laughs of the night. We’ll be hearing from him again.

Until September 9 at the London Palladium, London W1: 0844-874 0665 or www.windinthewillows

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