The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny, with original music by Paul Grimwood
(Carol of the Field Mice by Jonathan David Dixon).
Lyrics by Kenneth Grahame with additional lyrics by Gill Daly.
It was performed in gardens of Bell House from 8th to 16th July 2023.
CAST IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Chief Weasel/Washerwoman/Guard Charlotte Holmes
Mole David Frost
Rat Jo Bateson Hill
Badger Roger Orr
Toad Ed Beesley
Driver/Rabbit/Ensemble Heather Wilcox
Otter/Bargee/Ensemble Sophie Thompson
Portley/Ensemble Zoe Frost
Horse/Ensemble Judy Douglas
Hedgehog/Person One/Ensemble Josh Gwilliam
Judge/ Person 2/Ensemble Tracy Brook
Clerk/Ensemble Mike Stirling
Gaoler’s Daughter/Ensemble Severine Powell
Billy/Ensemble Mathilde Powell- Sykes
Billy’s Sister/Ensemble Jessica Frost
Ensemble Marcia Bennie
Ensemble Lynda Hansom
Directed by Gill Daly and Hayley Blundell
Stage Manager: Ben Lynch
Assisted by: Emily Lamm
Major Props: Elizabeth Holden
Costumes: Judy Douglas
Hair & Make Up: Denise Biffin
Poster Design: Clarisse Hassan
Front of House & Box Office : Jan Rae
by Mark Kelleher
Kenneth Graham’s 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows may not have been an instant hit on publication but it has since developed into one of the best loved and enduring classic children’s tales, adapted many times for film, television and stage. While the book has perhaps struggled in recent years to retain status when compared against faster-paced and dynamic modern offers, Graham’s work still regularly features in lists of top children’s stories. This longevity speaks to its status as a timeless tale of friendship, adventure and morality (along with more than a bit of silliness) that is still able to warm the heart and capture the imagination of young and old.
For those that are not already familiar with the story, the plot revolves around the escapades, trials and tribulations faced by a group of four friends – Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger – over the course of a year in the English countryside. While the original contains many side-stories and tangential episodes that belie its origins as a set of short bedtime tales and letters to Graham’s son, these are for the most part not captured in most adaptations – including this one – which focuses on the twin narratives of Mole and Ratty’s friendship, contrasted with the events that unfurl as a result of Toad’s self-destructive love affair with modernity. Although it is quite tempting to get caught up in the allegorical nature of the tales, and unpick the moral lessons contained within each episode, the successful staging of this play requires a balancing of characterisation and action to sustain the attention of both adults and young ones. Luckily, the cast and the directors managed to successfully toe this line in spades.
From the outset, Jo Bateson-Hill’s Ratty and David Frost’s Mole take to the stage as excellently developed characters that are incredibly believable (well, as believable as fully dressed talking rats and moles can be I suppose) and play well off one another throughout. Bateson-Hill’s vocal turns and facial compressions, in addition to frequent twitches and darting movements, create and suggest the Rat character, rather than over-relying on make-up or prosthetics. Similarly, to invent Mole, Frost uses a slightly shaky and stammering register, shuffling around stage squint-eyed with a myopic nervous energy that is incredibly endearing. However impressive these actors may be on their own, the magic really gets going when these two are in scenes together, with Ratty’s confident gumption contrasting very well with Moles excited nervousness. What was most impressive was how immediately the actors were able to convey a very genuine, charming and tender friendship which is the anchor for the rest of the action on stage. It’s clear that the actors have invested time in developing this camaraderie for the stage and congratulations go to the directors Hayley Blundell and Gill Daly for workshopping this aspect in rehearsal.
By contrast, Roger Orr’s stern but benevolent Badger acts as a calming and authoritative presence. With a booming register and purposeful striding around stage, Badger provides a static distinction against Ratty and Mole’s propulsive micro-reactions. Badger’s Victorian gentleman attire and a fantastic black-and-white hair dye job by Denise Biffin help to evoke both the animal and human qualities in the character, allowing Orr to focus on the steady rational delivery of his character’s lines, directing the action with focus and confidence.
Newcomer Ed Beesley as Toad wastes no time on rationality or steadiness, bounding on stage in a well-chosen double-breasted green waistcoat with all the chutzpah and wide-eyed self-assuredness that will ultimately lead to much of Toad’s misfortunes. Beesly really captures Toad’s self-conviction and blind, boisterous fascination (verging on addiction) to motor cars and speed. Throughout, we look on, with his friends, in some puzzlement as each time Toad gets into the driving seat and his over-optimism leads him to really believe that he belongs with his foot on the pedal. We really do believe that Beesley, as Toad, is convinced that each time he is caught out, it is the world, not him, that is in the wrong.
While these four did fantastic jobs of bringing these characters to life this was truly an ensemble piece, delivered by a large cast of strong supporting actors. There were too many fantastic moments to capture them all here but honourable mentions go to Judy Douglas as a clopping, grumpy horse, Mike Stirling as a farcically crabby county clerk announcing increasingly ridiculous prison sentences to a fusty judge, played meticulously by Tracy Brook and Charlotte Holmes’ equally hilarious and grotesque cackling washerwoman. The crew of weasels were well played and well costumed as a band of cockney Blues Brothers-esque gangsters in black with white ties and shades, headed by Charlote Holmes appearing again this time as chief weasel, displaying her range. Throughout the play new members Heather Wilcox and Josh Gwilliam also made important contributions to the action, covering an incredible range of characters and supporting tasks, acting singing and dancing and even driving trains!
One of the side-stories that did make it into this adaptation (and this reviewer, for one, is really glad that it did) was the tale of the mother Otter played with heartfelt conviction by Sophie Thompson, who has lost her lively, wayward son Portly, brought to life by a scampering, mischievous Zoe Frost. Keeping this tale in allowed us to see how the empathetic nature of our main characters extended to the community of animals around them, not just their friendship group. It also ended with a magnificent moving description of a sunrise before finding Portly. The staging of this section was quite magical, with a mysterious and evocative musical theme from Paul Grimwood accompanying an inventive, illustrative piece of physical theatre from the cast. One sole complaint could be that there were not more moments such as this one, as it was both incredibly effective and affecting.
A final special mention has to go to the younger actors who lit up the stage with their infectious exuberance. Mathilde Powell-Sykes, Zoe Frost and Jessica Frost were integral to the show and it was fascinating watching them over two performances to see how consistently they played their roles, adding in little flourishes and personal touches to their parts and in particular engaging full tilt with the ensemble pieces which they sang beautifully.
No summer production would be complete without music and dance and again this show did not disappoint with a great score courtesy of Paul Grimwood and some wonderful choreography including a particularly inventive and stylised fight-scene between the weasels and wood animals. This reviewer’s favourite musical moments were the springtime piece which was evocative and enigmatic and the tongue-twisting and stomach churning ‘Going Underground’. A song about everything delicious and disgusting to be found under the soil, it was delivered in a tour-de-force performance with clarity of diction, and somehow, straight faces.
The costumes by Judy Douglas were all fantastic – suggesting, rather than representing, each of the character’s animal-like qualities while sticking to the theme of English countryside Victoriana. Water-tight stage management by Ben Lynch assisted by Emily Lamm kept track of the seemingly 1001 props courtesy of Elizabeth Holden. This team was also in charge of a myriad number of sound effects such as motor car noises and door bells as well as physically representing bits of scenery when called for to bring the action to life.
Finally, Hayley Blundell and Gill Daly did a terrific job with their direction, tying together these many elements with an inventive, modern, character-led interpretation which made the best use of the surrounding location.
The setting of the gardens of Bell House was incredibly well suited to this play, the English country garden setting in South London nicely recreating the imagined English country side of the original story. Not all aspects of the location worked in favour of the play, however. Unfortunately, at times during this run of performances the actors and audience were let down by the one thing they could not control; the weather. Heavy rain and wind disrupted shows on both weekends. Still, the audience, the actors and stage crew persevered and delivered great performances even in inclement conditions. Just as the narrative of the play tells the story across the four seasons, so we had ‘four seasons in one play’. In a sense these setbacks only reinforced the overall narrative of the story – a tale of friends coming together, looking out for each other in times of adversity, to all come good in the end.