The Wind In The Willows is based on the popular children’s story by Kenneth Grahame and most people will be familiar with the adventures of Ratty, Mole and Mr ‘poop poop’ Toad by the riverbank. It has been adapted by Julian Fellowes who also wrote ‘Downton Abbey’ and tells the story of Mr Toad’s obsessions for the latest crazes and how his friends try to save him from himself.
But when you also add the creative brilliance of Stiles and Drewe to the mix, the story takes on a life of its own. The songs are witty and catchy and the cast seemed to have tremendous fun introducing this cracking show to Sheffield for its local premiere. Director/Choreographer Claire Harriott has provided a real winner here and the fabulous score was delivered brilliantly by Musical Director Ray Gallagher and his nine-piece band.
The show opens with the whole company joyfully welcoming the spring, led by Katie Mather as young otter, Portia. Her opening solo was beautifully sung and set the scene perfectly.
Regular Hallam and Handsworth audiences will recognise the usual faces in the principal line up and in a show like this one, with friendship as a key theme, it definitely helps that the principals already know each other well.
Playing Mole is Richard Granger who perfectly captures the slightly nervous reticence as his character is taken well out of his comfort zone by Joseph Walker’s irrepressible Ratty. Both actors impress and their relationship is easy and convincing. Their duet ‘Messing About In A Boat’ was a toe-tapping hit, their harmonies were perfect. Granger’s second-half solo ‘A Place To Come Back To’ was also sung well and one of the show’s vocal highlights.
Mr Toad has to be larger than life in comparison. He needs a joyful exuberance to work properly and Andrew Stansall delivers just that – he was relishing this fabulous role and his singing and acting were spot on. The audience loved his energetic performance.
Badger is a more serious character and Steve Mather gives the role the gravitas it requires, providing a necessary contrast from the other main characters. His singing was also very strong, especially in the memorable trio with Ratty and Mole ‘A Friend Is Still A Friend’. This song has glorious harmonies and a lovely melody–it’s probably the one the audience will hum on the way home.
There aren’t many female characters in the novel, but Fellowes tries to redress the balance by including Mrs Otter, a somewhat underwritten part, but nicely played here by Danni Birks Hibbert whose fine singing and acting are always dependable.
The evil weasels, stoats and foxes were led by Stuart Ogden and Andy Hibbert dressed as cockney spiv weasels and they made a despicable pair as they menaced Portia and Mole and took over Toad Hall. The ‘baddies’ song ‘We’re The Wild Wooders’ was sung and danced really well by the ensemble with very effective choreography.
The ensemble worked hard, taking on numerous animal roles – many of them were very young too and they all performed creditably. Special mention to the Hedgehog Family whose song about the perils of trying to cross the road without being squashed in the process was very funny. There was also a lovely trio from Swallows returning for the summer, wittily dressed as air hostesses.
The costumes were delightful, each one suggesting the animal represented rather than going for full animal outfits. So for example, the foxes are dressed in hunting pinks, the hedgehogs in bristly coats, the rabbits are footmen.
The lighting, set and props combined excellently to create just the right atmosphere. The scene where Ratty rows his blue boat across the stage was beautifully done and very effective. Toad’s caravan and car were fabulous, the insides of Badger’s and Mole’s houses were perfect. And it’s even more impressive that these were created in-house by members and friends.
The brilliant lighting from TD Lighting enhanced the show many times. Highlights included turning the stage to rippling water; helping Mole’s cold neglected house become a cosy home; creating the colours of autumn.
This is a feel-good family extravaganza and shouldn’t be missed. The whole production is a joy.
Wind In The Willows continues at the Montgomery from Thursday 20 June to Saturday 22 June at 7.15pm with a Saturday matinee at 2.15pm