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The Wind in the Willows review at Theatre Royal, Plymouth – ‘a complete charmer’

Neil McDermott and the company of The Wind in the Willows. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Kenneth Grahame’s beloved 1908 saga of riverside life The Wind in the Willows has been brought to the stage before: triumphantly, in a 1991 production at the National that was one of Nicholas Hytner’s first shows there, and initiated his long stage relationship with writer Alan Bennett, and as a Broadway musical flop in 1985 with Nathan Lane as Toad, a production that ran for just four performances.

Now a brand-new stage British stage musical has been made of this endearing tale, one that fashions out of it something that is irresistibly new yet recognisably old-fashioned too.

This is an authentically British scored and created musical full of dash and splash, not to mention endless dashing about thanks to Rufus Hound’s propulsive Toad. Always intent on new adventures that involve speed, he gets into all sorts of scrapes and high-spirited japes.  There’s also quite a bit of splash, not just along the river where it is set, but in terms of the eye-poppingly beautiful designs conjured by Peter McKintosh. These include, among other things, a life-size train, a river barge, and highly individualised residences for Toad, Mole and Badger, plus a courtroom where Toad is sentenced and the prison in which he is incarcerated – and escapes from disguised as a washerwoman.

Julian Fellowes’ book keeps all the plates in the busy plot spinning in Rachel Kavanaugh’s bright, buoyant production. It is powerfully galvanised by Aletta Collins’ eruptions of movement, with a top flight creative team making this the best looking and sounding new musical I’ve seen since Bend it Like Beckham.

Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, surely Britain’s most enduring musical theatre writing partnership having worked together for over 30 years, crown a productive year that has already seen them premiere Travels with My Aunt and a revised, heavily augmented new version of the 1960s musical Half a Sixpence.

As with Honk!, their biggest hit to date, they indulge an anthropomorphic delight in having humans represent diverse singing and dancing animals, and give them a score rooted in English choral music and pop influences that is full of honest melodies instead of pastiche.

It’s probably their best work to date. And an indulgently large cast make both the songs and characters come fully to life, with Fra Fee’s Mole and Thomas Howes’ Ratty striking up a genuine partnership, while David Birrell is an authoritative Badger trying to tame the wilder excesses of Toad, played with furious energy by Hound.

I smell a hit.

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This homegrown British musical version of the family favourite is a complete charmer