It’s very rare that you find a show that stays with you for weeks afterwards and demands to be written about, but I just can’t get The Wind in the Willows out of my head, so here goes nothing for my first blog of 2017!
The first thing that attracted me to this show was the cast – Rufus Hound, Gary Wilmot and Simon Lipkin in particular. All three are very gifted comedy actors and they, in the roles of Mr Toad, Badger and Rat respectively, already made the show very appealing to me. I grew up watching The Wind in the Willows on an old video tape, so if nothing else it would be a nice trip down memory lane. I wasn’t expecting to fall head over heels for this wonderful show, but who could resist?!
The theatre itself, the London Palladium, only adds to the whole experience. It’s a stunning venue, lovingly transformed to reflect both the woodland and the crazy green elements of the show, without being too overpowering. (I’m looking at you Wicked). We were very kindly upgraded to the premium seats of the theatre and we could not have asked for a better view of the vast stage. As the show was still in previews at the time it was quite quiet in the audience but there was still a lovely, family friendly atmosphere.
The show opens quite gently, with a myriad of beautifully costumed animals dancing around the stage. Among them is Portia the otter (played by the brilliant Emilie Du Leslay) who is forever going off on adventures, much to the exasperation of Mrs Otter (Denise Welch) who has the thickest Geordie accent this side of Billy Elliot. Not that I’m complaining, who doesn’t love a feisty Northerner in a musical?! I also have to mention the Hedgehog family, whose costumes could well be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
One of the show’s many strong points is the relationship between Ratty (Simon Lipkin) and Mole (Craig Mather). The two work so well together, with Mole’s endearingly positive attitude and Ratty’s absolutely deadpan one-liners (bravo Simon Lipkin whose comedic timing is always absolutely on point). Their first duet “Messing About in a Boat” is so lovely to watch, with the two of them “rowing” around the stage in a little blue boat. Craig Mather is the cutest little mole I have ever seen with such a sweet voice and the perfect “country” accent, and Simon Lipkin is surprisingly gentle as Rat (bear in mind the last time I saw him he was in a musical with “poop jokes and Whitesnake songs”) but still retains that cheeky glint in his eye and range of facial expressions that just make you cry with laughter.
The entire cast of this show are so perfect that it’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m afraid I do have one, and it’s Rufus Hound. I can’t think of a better person to portray Mr Toad, he embodies the reckless mischief of the character so perfectly, and each costume is more outrageous than the last. His song “The Amazing Mr Toad” has been stuck in my head for at least three weeks now and it puts a smile on my face every time I hear it (which is at least 12 times a day now I have the soundtrack in my car).
I can’t praise Stiles and Drew enough for the absolutely flawless soundtrack to this show, there isn’t a single weak link throughout. From the gentle “Spring” to the decidedly haunting “Wild Wooders” the clever lyrics and catchy tunes will stay with you for a long time after the curtain goes down.
There is one character in the show that I didn’t particularly like, and I feel absolutely awful about it because the actor is so lovely and spent so much time with the kids at the stage door afterwards, but unfortunately I just have to get this point out. I really do not like the Chief Weasel. The rest of the show is so subtle and understated, and then out comes this crazy Weasel in a bright purple suit that just seems really out of place.
The actor himself has quite an unusual voice (think Alun Armstrong in Les Miserables) that didn’t quite sit right with me and for some unknown reason the Weasel sticks his tongue out every 30 seconds like he’s dancing a Haka. I totally get the fact that the Wild Wooders are, well… wild (sorry) but other members of the clan, for example Rosanna Bates, exude a sort of menacing, almost creepy aura without going too over the top. I’m sorry Neil McDermott!
On a more positive note, I did love Gary Wilmot as the wise old Badger. Gary Wilmot is a childhood hero of mine, in fact I first saw him on the very same Palladium stage around 14 years ago in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and if anything he has become an even better performer since then. He plays Badger with just the right amount of authority and wisdom, and Badger’s home is one of my favourite setts (pun intended), especially with the bookcase that spirals around the entrance. Full marks to the set designer Peter McKintosh, the show is stunning throughout.
The show comes to a decidedly chaotic end with probably one of the best stage entrances I’ve seen, courtesy of Rufus Hound. I left this gorgeous show with a lovely feeling of contentment and nostalgia; it’s just such a sweet, wholesome production with a crazy talented cast and creative/production team, and I shall be very sad to see it go in September. I will most definitely be going back more than once before then!