THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012
Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.
First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.
The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.
The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?
The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.
The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.
There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.