The Wind in the Willows

A musical based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame, book by Julian Fellowes, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe
London Palladium
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Gary Wilmot, Denise Welch, Rufus Hound, Simon Lipkin, Craig Mather Credit: Darren Bell
Gary Wilmot (Badger), Simon Lipkin (Ratty), Craig Mather (Mole) Credit: Darren Bell
Neil McDermott and the company of The Wind in the Willows Credit: Marc Brenner

The Palladium is one of the world’s most iconic theatres but recently it has been struggling to find the magic formula of a show that will run and run.

The latest attempt is a musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless children’s novel which first saw the light of day last October at Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Its main selling point may be a book by Julian Fellowes, still riding high in the popularity charts having created Downton Abbey but also acclaimed in stage terms as the man who penned the book for Lord Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock. He is complemented by Stiles and Drewe, the musical duo who joined Fellowes in creating Mary Poppins. Underpinning the whole venture is that book first published 109 years ago.

Creating a show for children that will also appeal to the older generations who must both stump up for tickets and accompany the little ones is always a tricky balancing act. If you humour the children too much, the adults might get fractious, while getting it wrong the other way round is literally likely to lead to tears.

This 2½-hour production, directed by Rachel Kavanagh, seems to concentrate its attentions almost exclusively towards the child in us all, completely avoiding risqué jokes, nudges, winks or any acknowledgement that there might be adults in the audience.

The storytelling takes a long time to get into top gear although, as we are introduced song by song to the main characters, led by snooty Mr Toad, played by Rufus Hound complete with green hair, moustache and eccentric outfit. He is one of those intrepid types who constantly gets into trouble, which seems less of a problem when you are wealthy enough to own Toad Hall and experiment with all kinds of beautifully conceived vehicular transport.

Luckily, his pals Rat and Mole, respectively played by the dryly humorous Simon Lipkin and self-facing Craig Mather have his back, as youngsters might say. When they fall short, it is possible to call on the straight-laced Badger, Gary Wilmot with a little support from Denise Welch’s bubbly Mrs Otter.

The story should be well known, with Toad eventually getting into car trouble and prison, allowing Neil McDermott and his team of Wild Wooders to squat in the hall. Fortuitously, the bad guys also get by far the best of the songs firstly with the theme tune and then “We’re Taking over the Hall”.

While the evening is pleasant enough, no element is exceptional, which is probably what it would take to fill the London Palladium for any great length of time. Few of the songs are particularly catchy, the storytelling can be stodgy, although it builds to a satisfying finale and neither the choreography nor the design concept based around an eye will live long in the memory.

The likelihood is that a limited run through the summer holidays will appeal to grandparents looking for ways to entertain the young ones but that is probably the limit of the producers’ ambitions.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher