Wind in the Willows – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse

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Wind in the Willows – Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse, December 2012

by Barney Bardsley

I hold up my hand and freely admit it. Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite childhood books. The title alone induces waves of nostalgia for innocence lost. For the wild country ramblings so freely indulged in by me and my generation. These are barely comprehended by the much-protected indoor progeny of today. Add to this the cunning Yorkshire cadences of Alan Bennett’s stage adaptation – and the undoubted talents of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s former artistic director Ian Brown, who manages to mix the old world dreaminess of the story with a sharp dose of contemporary sass – and you are on to a sure-fire winner.

I remember Brown’s 2003 production in the same space with great affection. It was colourful, affectionate, dynamic. His 2012 version is similarly vibrant and new. But the large ampitheatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with its wondrous revolve and myriad technical complexities, poses a perennial problem for the actors. How to avoid being dwarfed by the grandeur of your surroundings. By the very size and brilliance of the sets? And, at times, percheing on Simon Slater’s beautiful and monumental river bank design, the cast do seem rather small. Too far away. But their talent is undoubted. The enthusiasm of the children infectious. The detailed “animality” of the characterisations very winning indeed.

“Convincing and rather touching”

Toad, of course, is the undisputed and outsized ego of the show. Paul Kemp plays him with sparkling panache. But I am particularly taken by the less glamorous role of Ratty (Jack Lord). His neat and bossy kindness – that of a naval officer who never quite gets the recognition from the ranks that he deserves, and retires early, disappointed – was thoroughly convincing, and rather touching.

Of the cameo roles, Tom Jude’s Albert the Horse, in which he droops and clip-clops and postures and complains, in a stunning evocation of a shagged-out old shire horse, fed up to the back (and rotten) teeth, and ready only for the knackers yard, deserves top honours. I can’t take my eyes off him, whenever he sidles into view.

“The cast let rip and storm around”

The beauty of staging this perennial piece of anthropomorphic wistfulness lies entirely in the body language of the actors. How much are they willing – like Tom Jude’s Albert – to leave their human selves behind and immerse themselves fully in their “inner animal”? Choreographer Lucy Hind does a fine job here. She coaxes real individuality and attention to detail from her adult and child performers. Just spare a thought for Leon Scott, who spends the entire show wiggling his bottom manically from side to side, in a plausible if unnerving evocation of the sturdy, fast-swimming, food-obsessed Otter!

There is no doubt that this show will engage people of every generation. Its story, of the over-weening folly of the over-rich (Toad), the kindheartedness of the humble (Ratty, Mole and Badger) and the eventual comeuppance of scallywags and ne’er-do-wells (the Weasels and Stoats of the Wild Wood) is simply irresistible. Where the production flags is where it stays too static, too long, in conversational exchanges. Where it triumphs is in the (all-too-short) song and dance set pieces. Here the cast finally let rip and storm around, doing what they do so consummately well – bringing down the house in a great big joyful noise.

images: Keith Pattison

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