The Wind in the Willows

Adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny from the book by Kenneth Grahame

York Theatre Royal

(2010)

Review by Mark Smith

The long-awaited and much hyped summer production at the York Theatre Royal is clearly aimed at reproducing the success of both writer Mike Kenny's earlier Theatre Royal collaboration The Railway Children (now successfully transferred to London's Waterloo Station) and the always popular pantomime. It is evident that a stunning amount of money - and care - has been spent on Lydia Denno and Catherine Chapman's design, which extends to the foyer, decked out like the crumbling interior of Toad Hall.

Inside the theatre, the stage is raised to Circle level, and a bank of seats inserted against the back wall, in order to present the production in the round; it is not an understatement to say that the Theatre Royal is transformed. There is a sense of excitement and expectation as the audience enters this lush environment to find several woodland creatures mingling and bantering with the crowd. This is well-judged and welcoming, rather than intimidating for the younger attendees.

Once the play begins, this atmospheric, evocative mood is continued, particularly in Richard G Jones's gorgeous lighting design which, at its best, offers glimpses of radiant blues and other shades in all the set's nooks and crannies, to conjure the shiver of shifting seasons.

Beyond the Wild Wood surroundings, the show really dazzles and captivates in its performances and characterisation, for which the whole team of writer Kenny, directors Katie Posner and Damian Cruden and performers should be commended.

The ensemble is uniformly excellent: Robert Pickavance (Mole) continues to surprise and delight with a touching and talented performance, and Sarah Parks as a female Badger shows a complete vocal and physical transformation from the less testing role of Sheila in Up The Duff. Despite his infrequent appearances in the first half, Martin Barrass brings from the panto his familiar comic timing and sense of unpredictable fun - ideal for the tearaway Mr Toad. Michael Lambourne is bewitching and entertaining in a series of perfectly pitched comic cameos. Jonathan Race proves a captivating Ratty - arguably the most rounded and endearing of the characters, with his occasional grumpiness contrasting his uncomplicated delight in the pleasures of messing about in boats.

All of the performers have clearly invested a great deal in creating their particular animal's physicality and speech, aided no end by Denno and Chapman's imaginative and clever costumes. The three musician-actors, Emilia Brodie, Kenji Watanabe and Richard Mark, are integral parts of the ensemble and the tale too, and Christopher Madin's music is delightful, catchy and performed with skill, energy and a sense of fun. Here again, the magic of watching a troupe of multi-talented actors, singers and multi-instrumentalists coming together to tell stories with humour and intellect proves as - if not more - rewarding than the special effects and costly setting.

If there is a note of caution to be sounded, it is that The Wind in the Willows cannot be an easy story - or set of stories - to translate into a theatrical setting, and at times this adaptation shows signs of the strain. The first half is mostly scene-setting and atmospherics, offering little in the way of ongoing narrative thread of which to keep hold. Plot strands are continually opened up only to peter out without a truly satisfying conclusion. The show opens strongly and beguilingly, with a rash of tricks and effects at first, but with Toad's exploits almost entirely held over for the second half, the show feels somewhat underpowered, or overlong, until after the break (though the show is by no means too long for its target audience of family groups). The theatrical tricks and games feel more evenly spaced in the latter phases of the production, and many of these imaginative games with set and props will enthral audiences of all ages.

In the second half, there are also moments of opaque, almost Chekhovian beauty, though these tend to be placed somewhat haphazardly in the midst of the more rambunctious adventures of Mr Toad. That is not to say that these do not belong in the piece: rather that the lack of a clear overriding narrative structure leaves the audience guessing somewhat at where the show will take us next. It is nonetheless to be fervently wished that a crowd of youthful theatre-goers may be attracted by the atmosphere and adventures (and the faces familiar from pantomime), but take something more from the occasionally more abstruse and poignant moments, depicting season giving way to season and nature returning to trump the seemingly unstoppable march of civilisation.