After successful openings in Plymouth and Salford, The Wind in the Willows: The Musical has finally hit London’s West End at The Palladium.
Adapted by Julian Fellowes from the classic children’s book and featuring music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, this production sought to bring the characters of Kenneth Grahame’s tale back to life – and indeed, much of the cast managed to capture the spirit of the animal-based adventure. Mole (Craig Mather) and Ratty (Simon Lipkin) made for an energetic duo throughout the evening, with Mole’s nervousness offset by his partner’s laid-back attitude (and occasionally euphemistic quips), whilst a hyperactive Toad (Rufus Hound) bounded through scenes with less of the likability of his original character but still with the same enthusiasm for speed. Weasel (Neil McDermott) skilfully combined comic relief with sinister physicality – unsettling enough at times, but always in mind of a younger audience.
Credit in particular must go to the team responsible for the set and costume design team led by Peter McKintosh. Huge flats and set pieces smoothly slid into place throughout the evening, with the audience whisked from riverbanks to houses and from steam-puffing locomotives to canal boats without any technical hitches whatsoever. A revolving platform set into the middle of the stage lent dynamism to walking and chase scenes, with the rest of the set robust enough to enable its cast to clamber all over it. Lighting was used to great effect too, especially when used in conjunction with the ceiling-hung roots to create the spooky Wild Woods – the home of the weasels, ferrets, foxes, and stoats.
Toad – ultimately the main focus of the show – was resplendent in a green tweed ensemble complete with matching hair and glasses.
The production’s costumes hinted at animals without necessarily resorting to full likenesses. Sometimes the suggestiveness was particularly inventive; Mole wore a moleskin suit, whilst a trio of migrating swallows were dressed as glamorous, 1950s Pan-Am air hostesses. Toad – ultimately the main focus of the show – was resplendent in a green tweed ensemble complete with matching hair and glasses.
It had much going for it theoretically: a fun, catchy spectacle with songs that I still can’t get out of my head. In interviews, its production team had already promised a fresh look at the classic tale, with new music and impressive sets to complement a more equal gender balance from a book whose characters were nearly-exclusively male.
But then it happened.
I couldn’t tell if the children in the rows in front of me had noticed. They continued to giggle at the figure long after the phrase had left his lips. I somehow don’t think they had picked up on it.
“ALL PROPERTY IS THEFT!”, Weasel had cried.
Uh-oh. Was Julian Fellowes writing in class conflict to a children’s book?
Their Bugsy Malone costumes suddenly seemed less friendly, their fluffy ears more Wicker Man than West-End musical.
What was going to happen to Toad? Were Marxist stoats dressed in engineering overalls about to take him down to a cellar and unload several rounds into his green tweed at point-blank range? At this point I hadn’t even been aware that they’d united amidst the chaos of their anarchic takeover of Downton Abbey Toad Hall. Their Bugsy Malone costumes suddenly seemed less friendly, their fluffy ears more Wicker Man than West-End musical. Obnoxious, narcissistic, and vain he might have been, but was Toad really deserving of an unmarked burial in a nearby forest? Previous snippets of dialogue flashed through my mind. “Comrades” – that loaded term – had already slipped into conversations without much notice: after all, why wouldn’t a weasel welcome his friends with a non-gender-specific term of endearment?
But even if you continued this line of thought to its grisly end, a far more tragic reality awaited the world we were introduced to. In the original story, the speed-prone amphibian is admonished from his crimes as the interlopers are driven from his mansion, never to be heard from again. Realising the true error of his ways, he then sets about righting his wrongs and curtails his excessive spending. Short of being canonised, he becomes a pillar of virtue for the local community. Suffice to say, the singing, dancing, and smiling was not enough to contain the truth of what actually went down.
Toad… [has] all the humility a spendthrift plutocrat with the worst characteristics of Jay Gatsby and Elon Musk can muster.
Toad manages to avoid charges by refusing to respect the authority of the court and declaring it to be illegal. Stumped by this defence, the judge’s poor command of the local legal system is enough for the official to be pursued off-stage by the police (now as a wanted fugitive). Instead of being exiled, Weasel faces subjugation and employment as a one-man, high-visibility-jacket-wearing garbage disposal team to be put to work in Toad’s alcohol-drenched blowouts. Toad, meanwhile, arrives on the scene of said revelry with all the humility a spendthrift plutocrat with the worst characteristics of Jay Gatsby and Elon Musk can muster. He’s not driving a car this time, but as he gazes at the other woodland creatures from his aerial view, it’s no wonder the last song is another rendition of We’re Taking Over. It’s an unsustainable, socio-economic dystopia.
Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. Would children ever look up reviews for shows and complain to their parents about suspicious communist subtexts? Maybe not since the McCarthy era. In all seriousness though, go and watch this for a fun adaptation of a classic children’s book – or just stay here and re-read this if you want to ponder more on what exactly a sequel might entail.
Image: The Wind in the Willows: The Musical Photo Gallery