The Wind in the Willows

Choreography by Will Tuckett

Linbury Studio Theatre

ROH2 Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

From 12 December 2012 to 05 January 2013

Review by Vera Liber

A magical world of nostalgic childhood escapism set in an attic, preserver of the past, where anything can happen. A dusty suit of armour, a chair, a chest, a painted armoire, a stopped clock, a rocking horse, an old black stove, and a rolled up carpet, all snoozing, hibernating.

But what’s this? The carpet moves, unrolls, and out stumbles Mole. Otter pops out of the chest with a fish in his paws, a stripy river flows from the armoire drawer, and Ratty sails by with a boat round his waist. Green fronds fall from the rafters, and here we are on the riverbank, Kenneth Grahame’s safe haven, his Cookham Dean.

All wondrous to behold: the Quay Brothers beautiful set design and Nicky Gillibrand’s clever costumes. Mole (Clemmie Sveaas remarkable) looks as if he’s been down a coal mine, Ratty is a dashing Errol Flynn (Will Kemp facially expressive), Toad (Cris Penfold a Robin Gibb Bee Gee lookalike) is a pampered spoilt child in striped socks, garish plaid plus fours and red waistcoat, and Badger (Sam Archer) a very sombre creature.

Rabbits wear woolly hats with ears, butterflies and dragonflies flutter on hands, ducks are tea-cosy hats on heads, scraggy puppet stoats snarl, bad boy weasels in drainpipes and black punk quiffs cause mischief, but the most amazing new creation is the white bewigged larger than life intimidating Dr Johnson judge figure—puppet designer Toby Olié has excelled himself. 

There’s doubling and tripling, but the standout versatile performance is from Luke Heydon, the only cast member to appear in every revival, as Otter, Chief Weasel, and a bashful saucy Gaoler’s Daughter. Toad’s enforced duet with her turns into a silly naughty Morris dance.

The armoire turns into a gypsy caravan, the Windsor chair becomes court dock and prison cell, the black stove a steam engine. Attention to detail is superb: the Rabbit postman carries Hare Mail, there’s a birdcage swinging off the caravan, and the attic cross beams look like the Angel of the North according to my young companion.

Pistols are fired, blunderbuss and swords employed in the battle for Toad Hall. There’s even a funny Scottish reel battle over crossed swords. Gentle humour infuses a gentle tale, narrated by Will Tuckett himself, choreographer and director standing in for an indisposed Anthony McGill.

The poetic text is by Andrew Motion, and the evocative music, composed by Martin Ward after the Edwardian George Butterworth, played by the twelve-strong Chroma Ensemble. Carol singers come down the aisles, and snowfall wets our hair and cheeks (or is it tears of pleasure?). Darkness falls, a generator is cranked, and fairy lights are switched on.

The dancing duets between Mole and Ratty speak of companionship, Badger’s solos reflect his withdrawn nature, Toad is chased all round the theatre and foyer by Keystone Kops with truncheons, and the reason the rebellious, ‘vulgar and disgusting’ Weasels invade Toad Hall is because they are tired of ‘for centuries feeling second best’. 

Not unlike the irrepressible Toad they are ‘children who refuse to grow up’. Aren’t we all… But, as in all children’s tales written with adults in mind everything turns out well. The four friends are ‘older but just the same’. The seasons have run their course, and Mole rolls himself in his carpet again, till the next time.

It doesn’t get much better than this delightful revival of The Wind in the Willows at the Royal Opera House’s subterranean Linbury Studio. From its tentative steps ten years ago, given only nine performances, to thirty this year. Demand for tickets is high for the first Christmas show ever commissioned by the ROH2 Studio.