Step into the glorious English countryside and encounter the delights of woodland and water bank characters in this all new musical Wind in the Willows. Based on the 1908 much-loved children’s classic by Kenneth Grahame the story of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad has transformed from book to stage, adapted by Downton Abbey creator and Oscar winner Julian Fellowes with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
It’s always a big ask for an audience to buy into a new musical yet this one managed to get the crowds flooding in as it opened at The Lowry, Salford this week where it runs until 6th November. Whether it was the adults craving some childhood nostalgia or introducing their own little ones to the charming tale it certainly struck the right chord on all levels.
From the opening bars we are welcomed into a world where creatures talk, dance and sing as they go about their day to day business. There’s families of foxes, otters, hedgehogs, squirrels and more as the cast of thirty plus perform a number of roles to bring the woodland to life. What the show is essentially about though are the friendships and bonds between these creatures and how they support each other through thick and thin. After a chance meeting by the riverbank, Ratty (Thomas Howes) invites Mole (Fra Fee) to come stay with him and they soon become great pals Messing About in A Boat. On the other side of the water the wise Badger (David Birrel) comes out of his sett to make his old friends’ son, Toad, keep on the straight and narrow.
Rufus Hound (Toad) is fast becoming a musical theatre name, having had successful roles in One Man, Two Guvnors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels previously. The actor, presenter and comedian comes to this production with a much improved singing voice than ever before and seems perfectly cast as the erratic speed-loving Toad, letting loose on his outrageous behaviour. Having seen Hound previously in action I felt he could have made his portrayal of Toad even wilder especially in the show-stopping number The Amazing Mr. Toad, and really used his zaniness to full effect. Having said that he delighted the crowds and guaranteed lots of laughs as he ‘Poop Poop’d his way through endless scrapes!
Fra Fee was adorable as the well-meaning Mole, with a heart of gold and a trusting nature. Fee’s lovely Irish lilt added an endearing quality to the character and his voice was full of real emotion for his home as he sang the solo A Place To Come Back To. Other notable performances came from Sophia Nomvete as Mrs Otter-bounding with energy and lighting up the stage with her charisma as the doting Mum looking out for her brood, plus Neil McDermott as Chief Weasel who brought a ‘Del Boy’ quality to the mischievous and downright dirty Wild Wood bunch.
This is a big budget production with some massive ‘showy’ numbers but for me it wasn’t those which left a mark after the curtain fell, it was the scenes that touched your heart for their sweet innocence. By far the best moments were when the extremely cute Hedgehog family lamented the trials of The Hedgehog’s Nightmare of crossing the road without getting squashed by a car and the Door mice choirs beautiful singing.
The true star of the show of Wind in the Willows is the set, a stunning masterpiece by Peter McKintosh. It’s hard not to be blown away by the attention to detail he has gone to in creating the homes of the main characters, from the impressive circular bookcase in Badger’s den to the intentionally frog shaped frame of Toad’s mansion he really does the production proud and sprinkles a bit of magic in every scene.
This quintessentially British production is well worthy of a West End transfer, which is definitely on the cards, although a tweak or two to some of the songs and a bit more action from the script wouldn’t go a miss before it gets there.
Wind in the Willow runs at The Lowry, Salford until 6th November