Benet Catty Productions

The Wind in the Willows (WE 2017)

Jul 17, 2017

London Palladium

So much of what makes musicals work is alchemy. The right collaborators, the right motives, the right theatre, the right time. That's why so many shows with great strengths are undone by their more dominant weaknesses. So the brilliance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's score for Love Never Dies was concealed by problems with the book. The familiarity of the story behind The Girls was undercut by the sense of money-for-old-rope.

The Wind in the Willows, now playing at London's most famous theatre The Palladium, is an example of a show being less than the sum of its parts. It's a pleasant evening out, has some great Stiles and Drewe songs and some nice visuals. Those who take their children for a treat will find it a merry evening out.

But it's not special. It's "ok", perhaps "ok-plus" and the theatre and the source demand something a good deal better than that.

Kenneth Grahame's timeless 1908 novel is an evergreen classic and has been much adapted, although oddly (perhaps tellingly) not as a musical. It is a magical story of various characterful animals trying to manage the irrepressible Mr Toad and overcome the scarier creatures of the Wild Wood in which the bespectacled, slipper-wearing Badger resides. It's a funny, whimsical tale about friendship, innocence and responsibility.

Julian Fellowes' script offers none of these qualities. It is incredibly low on gags, gives no flavour of the animal world, and provides not one dash of quirk or splash of eccentricity. This leaves the cast with precious little to do to animate their characters so all talk falls flat. Fellowes did lovely work on adapting Mary Poppins with Stiles and Drewe, and his collaboration with them on Half a Sixpence (which closes in September) is one of London's most joyous evenings out. But with the execrable School of Rock and now Willows, he proves completely incapable of writing for characters outside his own well-trodden niche - i.e. upper middle-class snobs. Dropping in a pair of gay dads (which he does here and in Rock - he's clearly going through a phase) is not the shortcut to relevancy that he thinks it is.

The songs are much better news. As expected from Stiles and Drewe, they are all tuneful, catchy, charming and resolutely English. Their trouble, though, is that they are almost all establishing songs that stop the action rather than advance it. So there's a song about the loveliness of the river, one about Toad liking his car, one (probably the best) about being a hedgehog, one about friendship. If it was a revue of songs inspired by the original story they would be ideal. But for a stage musical - a form for which the point is to tell a story through song - they feel like bolt-ons. In Toad terms, they are the leather seats of the vehicle, not its motor.

Rachel Kavanaugh directs (as she did with Sixpence) and the show moves fluidly enough on Peter McKintosh's sets but without any real inspiration. Those of us who saw what Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner were able to achieve with their adaptation of The Wind in the Willows at the National Theatre 25 years ago on Mark Thompson's awe-inspiringly imaginative designs find ourselves leaving the Palladium with enhanced admiration for what real creativity can make of this story, sadly lacking here.

The cast, largely, do no better than the material allows them to do, although Craig Mather and Simon Lipkin give it all they've got as Mole and Rat respectively and there's fun support from Neil McDermott as the villainous Chief Weasel. Rufus Hound provides all possible "poop poop" as Mr Toad but the material is not funny enough to engage his comedian's skills, nor well written enough to act. Gary Wilmot's Badger is a charisma-free zone (anyone who saw him in Copacabana 20 years ago will be unsurprised) but he sings his big anthem "A Friend is Still A Friend" well enough to distract from his stage absence.

The thirteen-strong orchestra brilliantly handles the many shifts of style that Stiles' score represents.

The Wind in the Willows is a pleasant evening out, and offers enough visual scale and melodic charm to be a worthwhile family trip (if they've already seen Matilda anyway). And kids go free (one free under-16 with every adult) which has to be a factor to take into account when making summer theatre choices. But the source material and the talent available could have created something much more worthwhile.

Despite the catchy pop songs about Mr Toad and his motorcar, this star vehicle spends too much time in the middle of the road.

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