Wind in the Willows

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Rufus Hound as Toad. Photo by Marc Brenner

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!

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Fra Fee as Mole. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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.

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Neil McDermott as Chief Weasel and the company. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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.

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Badger’s den. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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

www.thelowry.com

The Wind In The Willows, Press Launch

Adapted for the stage by Oscar-winning screenwriter and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows and Olivier Award-winning composer and lyricist team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, (collaborators on international hit musical Mary Poppins) brand new stage musical The Wind in the Willows is soon to come to life on the Lowry stage.

Kenneth Grahame’s much loved classic tells the tale of the vibrant Mr Toad, played by Rufus Hound, as he embarks on many an adventure with his trusted companions Ratty (Thomas Howes) and Mole (Fra Fee), there will be scrapes and predicaments along the way with Toad getting himself in a pickle on more than one occasion, but true friendship and a sense of belonging will prevail making this new production an absolute theatrical treat not to be missed!

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Producer Jamie Hendry values so highly the joy of this classic novel that copies have been sent to each school within the cities this World Premiere tour will take in, introducing a whole new generation to the fun and frolics of the flamboyant Mr Toad and his long suffering friends.

This week the cast and creative team gave a lucky few a sneak preview into what we can expect when the show opens on 27th October at the Lowry. Sassy Sophia Nomvete who will be taking on the role of Mrs Otter thrilled with her song, fast, fun and totally fabulous! Fra Fee recently seen playing Courfeyrac in the Les Miserables movie plays Mole, a soft, kind and gentle creature, his voice when singing his song about Home is just perfection, I literally didn’t want him to stop singing. Changing the tempo after Mole’s calming piece is Neil McDermott who portrays Chief Weasel, with just the right amount of swagger and attitude, McDermott makes it clear that his mischievous Weasel won’t give Toad, Ratty and Mole and easy ride.

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I spoke to Thomas Howes about his excitement to be making his musical theatre debut and getting back to the stage after many years doing film and TV. As soon as he heard about this new project he knew absolutely had to get involved, as the creative team described, this is a show for all generations, for Howes it will be an opportunity for his young nephews to come and see him in a family friendly professional role, something he is massively looking forward to. After auditioning then having several call-backs Howes contacted Julian Fellows who was unaware he was auditioning to say he’d got the part and got a huge, ‘Well done’ from the much respected writer who he had previously worked with on Downton. For Howes the generosity of Ratty is something which enormously appealed, despite Ratty’s stiff upper lip his caring nature and generosity shines through. A highlight for Howes being the song ‘A friend is still a friend’ which he feels will really strike a chord with audiences and highlights one of the most important themes running through the show, that being friendship and the importance of having and being a friend.

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The Wind in the Willows looks set to become an absolute smash hit, judging on this preview I have no doubt the show will become a runaway success, the excitement felt at the preview filtered from the cast and creatives to each and every audience member, it is clear that this is going to be something very special.

After the show’s stop at the Lowry it will hopefully head to the West End to further wow audiences. Tickets are available now and are selling fast for this perfect family tale of fun and friendship, book now to avoid disappointment and bag one of the hottest tickets of the year.

The Wind in the Willows – Thursday 27th October until Sunday 6th November

http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-wind-in-the-willows2