BWW Interview: Actor David Birrell On New Musical THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

David Birrell in rehearsal

David Birrell's extensive stage work ranges from An Enemy of the People at Octagon Theatre, Bolton, to Spamalot in the West End, as well as several years with the RSC. He's currently playing Badger in the new musical version of The Wind in the Willows, which features a book by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and an original score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. It's currently playing at Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

What was your first theatre experience?

I'm from Manchester and I used to get dragged to the Royal Exchange - I didn't know at the time how lucky I was! I found theatre trips a bit boring to start with, and I didn't do drama at school, but then I saw Robert Lindsay's modern dress Hamlet. It had such immediacy and urgency, and there he was in his jeans and bomber jacket. I thought, "That could be me, going off to uni, saying goodbye to my dad."

I also saw the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby - not live, but the version recorded for Channel 4. I saw David Threlfall in that, and remembered seeing him in a serious play at the Royal Exchange, and being on telly, and it clicked: this is what he does for a living.

Where did you train?

I stayed on to do A-levels - most of mates left, and lots joined the army - and it was actually a teacher at my sister's school who told me about Manchester Youth Theatre, which sadly is no longer. I did summer season with them and that was incredible. I then applied for drama schools and didn't get into the ones I wanted, so I waited and tried again, and got into Bristol Old Vic. I'm glad I waited - I wouldn't have had this career otherwise.

What was your first job in theatre?

I got my Equity card working at the Library Theatre in Manchester, playing a troubled teenager - at the time I thought I could probably build a career doing sensitive young Northerners! But the big thing that took me away from Manchester and let me do parts outside of my experience was getting my first two-year cycle with the RSC.

I got to do all these different parts, be serious, be funny, understudy, which you don't always get in regional or subsided theatre. I learned so much from people like John Barton, Cicely Berry, Barbara Houseman. Singing as well, which gave me confidence to think I could do musicals - I hadn't done any music at drama school, so I didn't think of myself as a singer.

The Wind in the Willows company
in rehearsal

Do you have equal confidence in that now?

I probably still think of myself as an actor who's in musicals. Though I was lucky enough to work with Sondheim, who was very happy to have actors who could sing. The same with Oh! What A Lovely War, which I loved - that was very character-based. Joan Littlewood refused to allow Fiona Laird to do it at the National, so she got round it by touring it in a large circus tent. But I haven't done as many commercial musicals - the last one was probably Spamalot.

What attracted you to Wind in the Willows?

It is quite extraordinary to be at the centre of a work on this scale, but really my association goes back to a workshop we did a while back. It's was all about the movement, and again it was mainly actors who could sing, and they wanted to see how 'normal' people could cope with what they had in mind. I thought then, "This is going to be different." I knew it wasn't going to be people in furry onesies padding around on all fours.

Most importantly, it's the people involved. I worked with our current director Rachel Kavanaugh when she was running Birmingham Rep, and we did Stiles and Drewe's Peter Pan. The designer was Peter McKintosh, who's doing this one as well, and I really trust them all: their taste and judgement, and that they'll do something really special and extraordinary with it. Julian's done a fantastic book, and George and Ant's work - we've just been hearing some of the orchestration, and it's left me gobsmacked, in tears, laughing at the sheer audacity of their choices.

Is it a fairly faithful adaptation?

It's still got villages, wild wood, the unspoilt riverbank, that nostalgic quality, but the design is more 1930s than Edwardian, so that immediately opens up lots of interesting areas. And the music takes it to places you wouldn't expect. Though it's got all the magic and spectacle you want from a big musical - when people ask me the difference between plays and musicals, I jokingly say "The revolve!" You want to see the audience's sense of wonder, remembering what it's like to go to the theatre as a kid.

So we've got automation for big pieces of set, but Aletta Collins has done a fantastic job finding the physical storytelling for us, rather than just relying on effects. It's also got real charm. What I love about Peter's work is it's an entire world, almost like stepping into a picture book. That's wonderful as an actor, as it gives you license to fully inhabit it.

David Birrell, Sophia Nomvete,
Thomas Howes and Fra Fee in rehearsal

Is there much updating in your approach?

One thing Rachel said to me early on is "I want to get away from the idea of it being all middle-class, middle-aged men". She's cleverly introduced some diversity into it, which works really well, and we're getting away from it being very RP - there are some regional accents in there.

Rachel is a fantastic leader - I trust her integrity implicitly. It's hard on a big show, where people are pulling in different directions, but on this one, it really feels like everyone coming together. You need someone strong out in front, and she really is.

What's your take on Badger?

Well, obviously it's hard, because I'm so young and Badger's so very old! I love him in the book, and what we've found in the adaptation and in the songs is just glorious. Ratty says he's the wisest of them all, and we've got this great bit where, as usual, we're trying to rescue Toad from himself, so Ratty and Mole are trying to grab him in these judo holds and he's slipping out like a piece of wet soap - Badger just steps in and swipes him with his cane. That's Badger in a nutshell.

But he's quite a surprising character. He's so formidable and grumpy, living on his own, doesn't like people, yet he has great warmth, humanity, benevolence, loyalty. I've brought a few new things to it in terms of his backstory - that's what I've inherited from my training, finding the truth in the text. And we've had the luxury of rehearsal time, which isn't always the case. Just the process of discovery together and that shared experience is fantastic.

Why do you think it's so enduring?

I remember seeing Michael Hordern as Badger in a stop-motion animation version, with David Jason as Toad - that's one of my earliest memories of this story. It's a lovely one to return to. The big two things in it are friendship and home. That's the lesson Toad needs to learn - it's not about goods and trinkets and toys, it's about your family and the home you create. Friendship is hugely important too - Mole is this solitary little mammal who says "Hang the spring cleaning" and enters this incredible adventure.

Rufus Hound and company in rehearsal

What's your favourite number to perform?

Badger has this number with Ratty and Mole which absolutely relates to that theme of friendship - it's a beautiful one. There are some songs that have this wonderful inspired lunacy, but this is just that great lesson that you'll do anything for your friends and be there for one another.

Rufus Hound is a fantastic Toad, because he's got that anarchic, overgrown schoolboy quality - he reminds me of Simon Russell Beale's Arthur in Spamalot - but he also has this warmth. There has to be a reason why these people rally round him, and he really shows that.

Are you conscious of catering to both kids and adults?

I really think it works in the best tradition of children's shows - kids will be mesmerised, but there's lots for adults too. That means children aren't patronised and the parents won't be bored witless! You can tell the team have that frame of reference of brilliant shows lately, like Matilda or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If we just did a straight, parochial version, you'd kind of think why are we doing this? It has to talk to audiences now.

People who think they know the story, think again. This is a crazy, anarchic ride through a wonderful world, and I think people are just going to want to be part of it, just like my godson saw Harry Potter and wanted to go to Hogwarts. It's one of those shows where you're sat forward in your seats, thinking "Oh blimey. What's going to happen next?" It's in that great tradition of involving physical storytelling, and I really think people are going to love it.

The Wind in the Willows is at Theatre Royal, Plymouth, until 22 October, The Lowry, Salford, 27 October-6 November, and Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 10-20 November

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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