You can’t ask for a warmer or more festive treat than the welcome revival of The Royal Opera House’s production of The Wind in the Willows, which is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre this Yuletide. It translates Kenneth Grahame’s childhood favourite into a sumptuous ballet, with narration composed by poet Andrew Motion delivered by the dulcet Yorkshire tones of Alan Titchmarsh.
Titchmarsh is a splendid host: affable and impassioned. Never mind that Grahame was a Scot: Titchmarsh’s loveable Yorkshire personality more than convinces as an embodiment of the author. He brings the world of the riverbank to life to mesmerising effect. His voice is soporific at times, yes, but always lulling the audience into the story. As a narrator, Titchmarsh is the heir to Alan Bennett, who did for AA Milne what Titchmarsh does for Grahame.
Grahame’s ode to the countryside, and his stark warnings about the advent of the motor car, and the devastation the countryside and wildlife will face with the creation of more and more roads at the cost of more and more hedgerows, is a lost argument. What was once a dire warning about the way the world was heading is now a quaint slice of nostalgia taking us back to simpler times, and to a lost world. That’s why The Wind in the Willows continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of successive generations. The Act One climax of the show, with faerie lights, hand-held lanterns, a chorus of singers and real-life snow (!), will melt the heart of the most hardened cynic, and wash through everyone else like the warming glow of a mug of mulled wine.
As for the performances, we have touched on Titchmarsh’s avuncular narrator already, but he shares the stage with superb dancers. It’s Sonya Cullingford’s Mole we’re introduced first, who makes her entrance in the most unexpected of fashions (we won’t spoil the surprise). Short-sighted and well-meaning, Mole’s mannerisms and sense of wonder and discovery bring the audience into the world of the mammalian creatures from the moment she emerges from sleep. Martin Harvey shines too as the dashingly heroic Ratty, whilst Ira Mandela Siobhan makes loveable the grouchy loner Badger. What of Toad? Cris Penfold is everything you could want: reckless, egotistical, self-pitying – but also funny and adorable. Besides the pitch-perfect lead actors, The Wind in the Willows also boasts excellent puppetry, with the stoats and weasels (always get a bad rap, don’t they?) brought to life by the rest of the company.
There are some great set-pieces in The Wind in the Willows, especially Toad’s infatuation with the motor vehicle, his later trial and imprisonment (like something out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall), and the unity of all four friends as they reclaim Toad Hall from the occupancy of usurpers. The Wind in the Willows will appeal to anyone who loves stories told through ballet. Cultured children familiar with the theatre will be entranced by the beautifully realised characterisations, but easily distracted youngsters aren’t the right audience for this one. Take them to a panto instead.
To get you in the Christmas spirit, we recommend this innovative and elegant adaptation of a children’s classic. Nifty design work and economical storytelling, along with imaginative performances create magic, and transport the audience to Grahame’s heartfelt but long-lost world.