Humanity Hallows Issue 4 Out Now!
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The musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s much loved novel is now showing at The Lowry, Salford
By Benjamin Cassidy
Interpreting anything well known and loved by generations is never going to be easy. The ‘anything’ in this case is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows. Grahame’s novel about talking animals and their adventures is one of the national treasures of English literature. Many other books, films, or bands, and their stories have been made the subject of musicals in recent years, with The Lion King perhaps being the best known example. The team responsible have the job of transferring the magic from screen to stage. This process is incredibly detailed and intricate, requiring precision planning and deftness to deliver a vision that can best represent the essence of the original work, and give it new life as something else.
As soon as the curtain went up, the show exploded into life with a real bang. The audience were introduced to their entertainers and the tone of the show was set. The cast leapt across the stage, and danced tirelessly to the sound of the orchestra below, who provided their instruction with the imaginative and expertly composed music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. It was delivered in perfect harmony with the finely honed voices, the lyrics acting as dialogue, within the narrative of the whole production.
The show gave just what was needed at the right time, to capture the atmosphere of the book, with none other than Mr Downton Abbey himself, Julian Fellowes, appointed custodian of the text, to ensure the story was respected. A name like that showed the intention and ambition of this production, and how important this role was to the producers. In the show, a circular spinning platform was the river for the famous boat scene, in which Ratty, played by Thomas Howes, first meets Mole, played by Fra Fee. It was there that they shared their first song, Messing About in a Boat, portraying the slow and gentle aspects of life of the English countryside which Kenneth Grahame so perfectly encapsulated, along with the changes threatening that way of life, in the shape of the rise in popularity of motor vehicles.
To anyone who has read, or seen one of the many adaptations of, The Wind in The Willows, the first character that springs to mind is the loveable mischief-maker that is Mr Toad, here played by the fantastically mischievous Rufus Hound. His big heart, and refusal to behave makes it impossible not to like him, even when he is going back on his word to his friends, and speeding off in a motorcar, causing chaos. It might even be this sort of stuff that makes us like him so much . . .
Fast forward a couple of songs, and we finally get to see the extent of the self-proclaimed Amazing Mr Toad’s arrogance and showman-like quality, in a song of the same name, performed in dazzling style and accompanied with flashing lights and an orchestra in full-swing. Here, the audience see that he loves the thrill of driving quickly and dangerously. It also gives audiences what Grahame gave readers, and is essential for any character to grab the hearts of people: evidence of being flawed. It is this idea that is central to Mr Toad; it is what happens to him and why that drive the story forward and create the plot. He ends up in trouble, and his friends, Ratty, and Mole, have to come to his rescue, following their consultation with higher statesman of the forest, Mr Badger, played by David Birrell.
As the show reached the interval, the audience seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. This is unsurprising, as the quality of the acting and the determination to stay close to the book, while actors stamped their own mark on Ratty and co, was clear for all to see. There was a real sense of togetherness on the night, and a celebration of literary heritage and the brilliance of British theatre at its best. This marriage of stage and book had so far been sublime, and left the crowd in keen anticipation of the second half.
The second half focused a little more on character exchanges, but wasn’t without musical highlights of its own. There was drama, in the traditional ‘baddies’, in the form of the foxes, weasels and stoats, threatening and planning against Ratty and his friends, who had easily won the hearts of the audiences by now, and also some good old slapstick situational humour, as Mr Toad has to go to great lengths to get himself out of trouble.
The supporting cast played their part too, with a mixture of age ranges involved. Youngsters who must have been no more than eight wowed and excelled, showing why they had been picked. It was easy to forget just how young they were, as they effortlessly burst into song, never fluffing a line, or hitting a wrong note. They were equal to their elder counter-parts; there was definite closeness of a very tight-knit theatre group, who worked together as a unit, to achieve phenomenal results. It was this sense of family that created the unity, which the audience were invited to be a part of.
As the story played out to its conclusion, there were more laughs, gasps, cheers, thrills and smiles, which became the backdrop to the atmosphere which the all singing, all dancing cast provided. Some of these memorable performances were from individuals, having their very own moments in the lime-light, and some were more group focused. The balance between the two was so well choreographed that it was almost impossible to pin-point one individual star of the show. Ultimately though, the accolade went to Mr Toad, who was always going to be primed to be seen as such, owing to the likeability of his character, as long as he delivered. Nobody seemed to disagree that he did, judging from the rapturous applause that rang through the theatre, as things drew to a close.
Brilliant writing, sensitivity to the novel it was based on, a talented and hard-working cast, a world-class orchestra, and inventive and finely crafted sets all came together in what was a resounding success on the night, a show that did everything it promised to do. The Wind in the Willows successfully put the themes, and more importantly, the tone of the book onto the stage, managing to make it contemporary, exciting, and most of all, entertaining, which is always the primary job of any musical. It gave something timeless new sparkle. It shimmered, and twinkled with life, movement and song. Where a diamond and this show differ is that the show simply didn’t have any flaws. An easy five out of five, this is not one to miss, and cannot be recommended highly enough.
The Wind in The Willows is running until 6th November 2016 at The Lowry Theatre. For tickets and information visit The Lowry website.