BWW Review: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, London Palladium
Hot on the heels of the success of the reworked Half a Sixpence, Stiles & Drewe team up with Julian Fellowes once more to adapt a well-loved children's book for the stage. The Wind in the Willows has premièred at the end of last year in a short tour and now has a limited London season over the summer - just in time for the school holidays and Kids Go Free (now running for the entirety of August).
It is just approaching spring in the forest, and everything is as it should be; animals are working together and hope is in the air. Mole even ventures out a bit further than normal, making a new friend in Rat and sailing around the river with him.
Months pass, and then they receive an invitation out of the blue to Toad Hall - Rat isn't keen to rekindle his old friendship, but Mole is more optimistic. They soon get caught up in Toad's latest obsession (a caravan), but before long something newer and better comes along: a brand new motorcar! As usual, Toad takes things too far and lands himself in trouble - ready for the Wild Wood inhabitants to take advantage of his unexpected absence...
My first impression is that it's rather long for a family show - and not a lot actually happens in that time! It takes around an hour to set the scene and introduce the characters, then the rest feels quite hurried as they try to contrive a resolution. The cast is quite large; it's almost as if the creative team have tried to create a bigger part for them all, but this comes at the cost of a focused storyline. In fact, Fellowes should give children more credit in their ability to follow a plot, rather than giving them a series of sketches.
Most of the show is made up of song and dance routines (some innovative choreography from Aletta Collins here), but there are far too many reprises, and a lot of the songs do end up blending together. Some scenes could easily lose a song and simply have a couple of lines of dialogue in its place - for example, Mole sings about being home and straight afterwards the field mice arrive and also sing a song, when Mole could just as effectively express his joy with words.
Peter McKintosh's set design is highly mechanical, and makes repeated use of a revolve. If it weren't for this, I'd say this kind of story would be better suited on a smaller stage - it sometimes feels a bit lost. This is in contrast with the recent adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, which has played on more compact stages but makes more effective use of the space offered.
Of the ensemble, the Hedgehog family are something of a highlight, especially as they attempt to cross an increasingly busy road. Some much-needed irreverence comes from Simon Lipkin as Rat, with his characteristic delivery and big vocals. Craig Mathers charms as an earnest Mole, always willing to see the good in his fellow animals.
Mr Toad is described as "a force of nature" - something that Rufus Hound does well to live up to. His performance goes at full throttle from the moment we first encounter him, and Hound just about keeps the audience onside as his escapades grow ever more dangerous and foolhardy.
Whilst it's not particularly groundbreaking, The Wind in the Willows definitely brings some family fun to the West End. Avowedly old school, with hints of contemporary ideas, it's a visual treat that has its entertaining moments.
Picture credit: Darren Bell