BWW Interview: Simon Lipkin Talks THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Simon Lipkin's numerous credits include Avenue Q, Rock of Ages, The Lorax and Guys and Dolls. He's currently starring as Rat in a new musical version of The Wind in the Willows, which begins its West End run at the London Palladium on 16 June.
What was your first experience of Wind in the Willows?
I definitely read the book when I was young. Actually I don't know many people who didn't read it at school or with their parents. There was an era that I fell into when there was also a movie and a TV series, and I saw a production of it too.
It's brilliant because you can let your imagination run wild. It's so full of weird characters, and I've always been a fan of weird! But you've got talking animals, and yet it all rings so true - the scary animals in the wild woods, the mismatched group that comes together to create a band of merry men who go off on this adventure together.
How do you aim the production at both kids and adults?
It's the most exciting challenge of doing a family show - you want both the kids and the grown-ups to be engaged and interested, so you're finding those moments that are funny for a six-year-old, or a 36-year-old, or a 60-year-old. I'm a big fan of comedy that reaches lots of different people.
What's the music like?
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written the most beautiful score. I'm no purist when it comes to musical theatre - I don't mind a jukebox musical, I've done them - but to sit and listen to an original score is so exciting. It's new but also timeless, and it's just gorgeous. It's a British score to go with a classic British story, so you get Gilbert and Sullivan light operetta moments through to Eighties punk Brit rock vibes, and just beautiful tunes.
How animalistic are your performances?
We aren't pretending to be animals - it's not prosthetics and funny heads and crawling round on all fours. It's more human beings representing these characters who just happen to be animals. That allows you to connect with it as an audience, because you get that fun, fantastical element, but also recognisable human qualities.
How did you approach Ratty?
I did sit and watch some footage of water rats. But it wasn't literally seeing that and thinking "I'll be like them" - more taking little characteristics, like you notice they lead from the head a bit or scratch behind their ears when they get irritated. I wouldn't scratch my ear, but I might scratch my chest. Neil McDermott, who's Chief Weasel, noticed weasels never stop moving, so that's gone into his physicality.
Ratty knows everyone, he's everyone's mate, though he does get grumpy. Toad winds him up, but he'd never turn his back on him. Mole is so closed off to this world, so I get to introduce him to it, and then we get swept up in this journey with Toad.
It's a fantastic cast - and especially amazing for me to work with Gary Wilmot, who I grew up listening to! It's a happy bunch of people and a very talented bunch of people. Our director Rachel Kavanaugh brought together this really smart, creative, fun team, and everyone involved has such a clear idea of what they were doing.
Is it set in a particular period?
It's not specifically in any one time, but it does have something of a pre-war, Thirties style in the clothing, and with Julian Fellowes' script, the language tends to sit in that Downton-esque period.
Peter McKintosh has done these amazing designs - it's so vibrant and characterful, this picture book world. He's so smart about how it transitions, and you get these magical "There's a what on stage?" moments. The show spans a year, so we have spring through to autumn leaves, Christmas, summer - all these lovely different seasonal points.
What are the major themes?
Home and friendship are two massive themes. Friendship coming in all shapes and sizes - especially nowadays, that's a really important message. You can come from anywhere, any background, and that doesn't stop you making friends with anyone if you reach out.
Is it quite a nostalgic piece?
It's a classic book, but this really is a reimagining of it. We're true to the original while giving it a modern facelift. There's always going to be people discovering this story for the first time, so it should feel new, not a museum piece, while also having those elements people have loved for years.
Do you have a favourite scene or number?
There are so many lovely bits. The opening scene when I first meet Mole is wonderful - we have this song "Messing About in a Boat", when we get in a boat and sail down the river. It's a beautiful piece of songwriting, and you're there on the revolve in the Palladium - it doesn't get much better than that!
I'm proud of the Kids Go Free scheme - it'll really help to get kids in the theatre, and give families the opportunity to go together. We know going to the theatre isn't the cheapest thing in the world to do, and you often have one parent sitting out, so that's a brilliant thing.
Do you have younger family members going?
Yes, I tend to do more adult shows, which aren't quite as appropriate - it wouldn't work with Avenue Q or Rock of Ages! So it's nice for them to finally see what I do.
How do you tend to choose projects?
I really like doing something weird and interesting and different each time, and I love making people laugh - I have ever since I was a little kid. I've been really lucky over the years to do so much cool stuff. Honeymoon in Vegas was such a joy - to stand there on a stage and have a sing of it, and work with very talented people. I don't know if it'll come back, but that was great.
Any dream roles?
There are things I'd like to do, but I always say I'm open to whatever comes along, as long as it's good and entertaining. It's nice to do new work and put your stamp on something, have free rein to think "This is what I'd do with this", but those long-running shows are just as important to keep people going to the theatre. I have no doubt in 15-20 years I'll have played Thenardier in Les Mis!
Who inspired you when you were a kid?
I had this video of Michael Crawford doing Barnum at the Palladium, and I used to watch it twice a week. His mix of being in musicals and also being funny on TV really made me thing "Wow, I want to do that, I want to be him". I actually did Billy Liar, which he originated, as my first part, and I'd love to Barnum. There's been opportunities to meet him over the years, but I really wanted him to just remain that amazing guy who inspired me.
Finally, why should people come see The Wind in the Willows?
You'll have a really enjoyable time, there are heartfelt moments, lots of great songs, and we're at the Palladium! There are so many beautiful theatres in the West End, but this one has something special. Whether you know the story or not, it'll be a brilliant night out at the theatre.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner, Darren Bell