27 October to 6 November 2016
Reviewed by Dotty Winters
Billed as the big new musical, The Wind in the Willows is a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s much loved book, with a script by Downton’s Julian Fellowes and music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
From the outset this production majors on being completely adorable. The opening number, cast of critters, beautiful staging and attention to detail are all heart-warming and very charming. The decision to use costumes which indicate which animal is being represented (a tail here, a badgery-grey streak here, hoodies with ears, an unmistakeably weasly moustache) rather than full dress up add to the charm – it’s so much easier to anthropomorphise animals when they are people! Some of the costume solutions were incredibly creative (for example the retro air-hostess swallows) whilst others were less oblique, but nonetheless effective, like the hedgehogs.
Overall the performances are the strength of this show. Rufus Hound has more than enough pizzazz, and excellent pipes as Mr Toad, and makes excellent use of his comic instinct of how to use facial expression, inflection and outrage to extend and heighten humour Fra Fee’s mole is visually and behaviourally quite hobbit-ish, leaving even those unfamiliar with the story in no doubt that come the hour, bravery will prevail. As Chief Weasel Neil McDermott (best known as EastEnders Ryan Malloy) put in a brilliantly cartoonish performance, displaying some impressive agility and appearing to channel Tim Curry. The character of Mrs Otter is a welcome addition in an otherwise very male-heavy story, Sophia Nomvete grabs attention and laughs from her first appearance. Some of the strongest moments are the whole cast numbers, with both the choreography and the characterisations creating completely absorbing tableaus.
Fans of the book will be familiar with the slightly odd pacing, with much of the dramatic action and peril is in the second half. This production is fairly true to the book (in a good way), but this meant that the first half felt slightly too long and gentle to hold the attention of some of the younger audience (although equally they were completely bought into the action packed second half).
Whilst the story is familiar, the songs are new, and worked very well – showcasing the impressive vocal talents of the Company. Special mention to The Wild Wooders and A Friend is Still a Friend which were catchy enough to still be bouncing round my brain the following morning. The themes of friendship and accepting difference come across strongly, and it’s refreshing to see a musical which centres on friendship rather than a traditional theatrical love story- more bromance than romance.
We’ve come to expect innovative stage design from large-scale musicals and this production doesn’t disappoint. The attention to detail in the animal homes (especially Badger’s set, which I would like to move into immediately) is so excellent that it almost risks detracting from the action, and the creative solutions for the many vehicles in the story is spectacular. Special mention for managing to sneak an entire steam train onto the stage whilst I was distracted by some mice.
We watched the production at the Lowry which was, as ever, a pleasure. The whole venue is well presented and comfortable with great facilities and staffed by an always knowledgeable and engaged team.
We saw a very early performance in advance of the West End run, and all the signs point to a new hit musical, bringing the wonder of Wind in the Willows to existing fans and new eyes alike.
Tickets cost from £20.50 to £45.50
The Wind in the Willows is at The Lowry in Manchester until 6 November 2016. For more information or to book tickets click here or call the box office on 0843 208 6000.
The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Manchester, M50 3AZ | 0843 208 6000