THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018
This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild. It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage. And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around. Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.
With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure. She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion. Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most. Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.
This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions. Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary. Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.
The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble. Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart. Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing. The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.
Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism. Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised. It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.
Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.
A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!
Leave a comment | tags: Alicia McKenzie, Daniella Beattie, Emma Manton, Kenneth Grahame, Kieran Buckeridge, Laura Willstead, Lis Evans, Matt Baker, Matthew Burns, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Peter Leslie Wild, review, Richard Keightley, Rob Witcomb, Sophia Hatfield, The Wind in the Willows, Theresa Heskins | posted in Review, Theatre Review
THE 39 STEPS
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 1st March, 2016
Having only recently ended its West End run of almost a decade, one of my favourite shows comes to town for a week in this exuberant touring production; I am delighted to have the chance to see it again and be tickled by its silliness and comic invention.
This is a show that celebrates theatricality – it wallows in it, in fact, archly satirising its own artificiality while at the same time making us marvel at the skills and cleverness involved to pull off its tricks and stunts. The script is by Patrick Barlow, adapted from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (I believe I saw the show’s first incarnation many moons ago) but the spark that generated the show is the John Buchan spy thriller as distilled through the cinematic eye of Alfred Hitchcock. (The show is peppered with references to Hitch’s films, for added laffs).
But you don’t need to know all that in order to enjoy yourself. This is quite simply one of the funniest shows it has ever been my pleasure to witness and, I’m pleased to say, its ability to amuse does not diminish with repeated viewings. The inventiveness of director Maria Aitken is still admirable – the audience gasps at the cheeky breaking of the fourth wall, and the speed at which the ideas keep coming. Part of the enjoyment comes from seeing how the effects are pulled off; another part is appreciation of the performers. The success of each flash of brilliance is dependent on the skill and unflagging energy of the cast of four, a versatile quartet whose verve and comic timing keep the show running like well-oiled, overwound clockwork.
Olivia Greene plays three of the female roles, ranging from a Germanic femme fatale, to a lonely Scottish farmer’s wife, and the platinum blonde love interest Pamela. If anyone says women can’t be funny they have never seen this show (or crawled out from under their rock).
Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb work devilishly hard as Man 1 and Man 2 – providing all the other characters, sometimes at the switch of a hat (miraculously, no hats are dropped during the high-speed changes). As a double act or working singly, this pair are breath-takingly good. Broad characterisations, quick changes, vocal dexterity and accomplished physical comedy, these two have them all. In spades. And so does Greene. And so does the man of the match, our hero Richard Hannay – I squealed in excitement to learn that Richard Ede has returned to the role I think he was born to play. Tall and dashing (literally, for the most part) Ede consolidates his status in my view as the funniest man in British theatre. Hardly ever off, Ede hurtles around the stage, jumping from train roof, falling from railway bridge, climbing a cliff face, or just pelting through the Scottish countryside. You can’t take your eyes off him in case you miss a reaction. Utterly charming and relentlessly hilarious, Ede is supported by an equally talented cast – every cog in the clockwork relies on others in order to do its job – and a production that is unerringly laugh-out-loud funny.
An unadulterated joy.
Not to be mist! Olivia Greene and Richard Ede (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)
Leave a comment | tags: ALfred Hitchcock, Andrew Hodges, John Buchan, Maria Aitken, Olivia Greene, Patrick Barlow, review, Richard Ede, Rob Witcomb, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, The 39 Steps, The REP Birmingham | posted in Theatre Review