Wind in the Willows – ROH at The Duchess Theatre.
Guest Review by Natalie York:
I cannot think of a nicer thing to do for a child this Christmas than take them to see the Royal Opera House’s wonderful “Wind in the Willows” at the Duchess Theatre. I always loved Kenneth Grahame’s effortlessly brilliant classic so I went in feeling rather possessive of Ratty and Mole and especially Mr Toad but it was clear from the start that the show was made by people with a deep respect for their source material, maintaining the understated wit and quiet charm of the original.
The whole show has a handmade feel to it aided by the Quay Brothers’ deceptively detailed set where any scenario whether river bank or Toad Hall can be constructed by the cast out of odds and ends found in what looks like a poky Victorian attic. We see a cupboard become a carriage and an oversized rocking chair turned on its end to become a prison cell. A real highlight are the puppets who pop up occasionally to fill out the cast. The best of these is a colossal judge, all wig and ruffles, who looms over the cowering toad chanting his verdict in a booming voice that is genuinely a little scary. He is the only cast member to speak apart from Tony Robinson’s genial narrator who bumbles through the show serving both as guide to the audience and occasional participant in the action. It is Robinson’s amiable but authoritative tone that sets the pace for the production, often speeding it along like an excited child keen to get to the next bit and sometimes slowing down the eternally overexcited Toad from getting ahead of himself.
It is Cris Penfold as Mr Toad who is the undoubted star of the show. Leaping across the stage like a jack-in-the-box there is even something weirdly amphibian about Penfold’s movements, as he manages to suggest webbed feet and jelly legs in the subtlest gestures. His face is equally elastic conjuring up the many absurd emotions of Mr Toad whether pining after his stolen home or glorying in his stolen motor-car. The contradiction at the heart of his story is presented with little apology since we are expected to support a selfish and ridiculous aristocrat and condemn the weasels and stoats who threaten his hierarchical domination but the sheer ridiculousness of Penfold’s Toad encourages you to always judge him indulgently, like a naughty child, and it is hard not to end up cheering him on in spite of yourself.
The rest of the cast also shine both in their dancing and characterization. Will Kemp makes for an endearingly pompous Ratty dressed straight out of “Three Men in a Boat”. Clemmie Sveaas is utterly charming as Mole, especially in the fight scene where she finally finds her courage and Christopher Akrill as Badger is all shabby wisdom and grumpy kindness mixed in with just the right amount of genuine menace. I also particularly enjoyed Kayleigh Gore’s short role as “post rabbit”, complete with ears and woolly hat, who seemed to jump 3 feet of the floor in her nervous excitement.
The dancing in general is lovely, the expression of character is clearly more important than presenting complex choreography but thereis enough technical precision and skill to placate more rigourous dance fans. The production is also not afraid to exploit the comic potential of truly terrible dancing as we see in the interlude between toad and the jailor’s daughter (memorably played by Ewan Wardrop).
Ultimately this was a genuinely special show which could easily be used to introduce any kid to “Wind in the Willows” and ballet in general. With a fabulous cast and a great story I would recommend it to anyone.
To book tickets for the Wind in the Willows:
The Duchess Theatre
London, WC2B 5LA