It’s impressive, in a way, to see a version of The Wind in the Willows so utterly devoid of nature. Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel of 1908 pitted the gentle bucolic life against the grim incursion of man-made machines. The need for speed versus a love of lollygagging. Well, here, all signs of natural life are missing. It’s all clean lines, block colours, gaudy costumes.
This new British musical adaption was first seem last year in a regional try-out in Plymouth. The book – such as it is – is the work of Julian Fellowes. The Gosford Park and Downton Abbey writer now tackles Toad Hall – the man clearly has a thing about country piles.
Only one of the characters, Toad, feels in any way like an actual character, with the rest coming across as pretty flat; the dialogue is entirely functional.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s songs are pleasant and hummable enough. One’s even pretty good (The Open Road). But they tend to interrupt rather than enrich the story. Jaunty and plentiful they may be, but they’re also perfunctory, and the lyrics become quickly tedious. Lines twist themselves into knots in order to find a rhyme that’s visible a mile off.
Peter McKintosh’s set has flashes of inspiration, like the squat and bulbous facade of Toad Hall whose ocular windows make it look like a toad. But, overall, it’s too crisp, too clinical. Around the proscenium are recessed semicircles made of plain, pale planks of wood, Scandinavian in their blankness. Even the curtains of greenery that bob up and down in waves over the stage look plastic and manufactured – Ikea does the great outdoors.
A few of the cast put in some decent performances, like Gary Wilmot’s stern and military Badger whose authoritarian air helps knock Toad down a peg. There’s a good turn from Neil McDermott too, who plays Chief Weasel like an oily spiv or an East End gangster.
However, the usually excellent Simon Lipkin seems to be coasting as Ratty – although, to be fair, he hasn’t been given much of a role to begin with – and Denise Welch as Mrs Otter (gender-swapped from the book) struggles to hit most of her notes.
The big part, of course, is Mr Toad and Rufus Hound brings all his raffish bluster to the role, the epitome of a tweedy, boyish country gent. He’s brilliantly larger than life, with more than a glint of mischief in his wide grin as he prances and preens in shades of luminous green. He’s easily the best thing about this show.
The problem is, Toad is meant to be the symbol of detachment from mother earth: his love of chrome and of extraordinary speed an affront to the natural balance of the river bank. But, in its clean aesthetic, in its inoffensive, almost humourless book, in its unenlightening songs, the whole production feels a world away from anything remotely pastoral and, as a consequence, it’s all rather bland.