At some point in our childhoods, I am sure that many of us have stumbled across the story of Ratty, Moley, the uncontrollable Mr Toad and their adventures on the riverbank. A classic tale of friendship full of heart and throwbacks to simpler times as the woodland creatures unite against the wicked wild wooders, lead by the dastardly Chief Weasel, all whilst trying to control Toad and his obsession with speed and the newest invention.
With a creative team including Julian Fellowes and music writing double act Stiles and Drewe, Wind in the willows was destined to be a hit. With the teams smash hit Half A Sixpence receiving critical acclaim in the West End already, the timing was perfect for Wind in the Willows to open in the home of variety – The London Palladium. Now, this isn’t the first time I have seen this show, I was lucky enough to be in the audience on the world premier press night when the show opened at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last October. Seeing it move from the smaller regional theatre (where it was very well received) up into one of the most famous theatres around is wonderful and seeing how it has grown and changed is amazing.
Everything is on a bigger and more over the top scale. A show like this is suited to the grand surroundings of the Palladium. The sets are spectacular, at first appearing simplistic yet full of little details, especially in the homes of Toad, Badger and Mole. From the heart-warming sight of the willows billowing gently as Mole and Ratty mess about on the river to the impressive steam train and canal barge that fill the second act with adventure and joy, the set pieces are exceptional yet still allow the imagination of the audience to run wild. The costumes are also brilliant, detailed enough to show each animal characteristic but subtle enough to not be over the top or too much. I loved the zoot suited weasels and the spiked scout uniforms of the hedgehog family (a particular favourite of the audience). The gentle humour of the costumes is seen in the foxes being dressed in hunters dress and the green hue to every one of Toads outfits.
With a star filled cast including comedian Rufus Hound as Mr Toad and Gary Wilmot as the strict military like Mr Badger, Wind in the willows is full of west end favourites and bundles of new talent, I particularly enjoyed Josh Gannon’s portrayal of the troublesome lesser Weasel, following behind Neil McDermott’s wild wooder leading Chief Weasel like an apprentice following his master eager to learn his ways. I think the biggest applause of the night went deservedly to Simon Lipkin and Craig Mather as Ratty and Mole. Both were wonderful. Lipkin’s comedic timing and use of sarcasm added new levels to the river dwelling ratty, a character who wishes for the simple life yet would do anything for his friends. Mather’s portrayal of the innocent mole was great, he appears perfectly suited to the role. His second act solo ‘Somewhere to come back too’ will tuck at the heart strings and make you love mole even more.
Denise Welch brought plenty of energy to her role of Mrs Otter, her comedy moments were brilliant and you really felt for her when she discovered the disappearance of her daughter Portia. Gary Wilmot brought a level of authority to his role of Badger, guiding Ratty and Mole along as they united to take Toad Hall back from the wild wooders. And as for Rufus Hound as Mr Toad, he was great, bounding around the stage with tonnes of energy and personality. Vocally I feel that Hound has improved since I saw the show in Plymouth. McDermott also appears to delight in his role of the wicked Chief Weasel, full of attack and numerous funny facial expressions.
Over all, I loved Wind in the Willows. Yes it’s cutesy and yes its a bit twee in places, but it is perfect for the summer season of the West End. Perfect for all of the family to enjoy. I’m sure that there will be many children experiencing their first taste of live theatre with this show and there is something great and magical about that. The music is wonderful, and easily gets stuck in my head especially ‘Wild wooders’ and ‘we’re taking over the hall’. The set is spectacular and the costumes are great. The cast and crew bring this classic children’s story to life on a grand scale and I am sure that it will be the hit of the summer.