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.