A romp on the riverbank
(Filed: 12/12/2002)

Ismene Brown reviews Wind in the Willows at the Royal Opera House

The year's most charming Christmas offering can be found in the bowels of the Royal Opera House. The Wind in the Willows is a theatrical-dance-musical production that I dare say any young watchers will find themselves remembering happily for years to come.

Some fine talents are involved - former Royal Ballet performers such as Adam Cooper, Matthew Hart and Anthony Dowell, poet laureate Andrew Motion, and, as set designers, the Brothers Quay, leaders in cinema animation. Visually, it is an utter delight.

The challenge of bringing a riverbank, Toad Hall and the great outdoors to the poky little Linbury Studio Theatre has been surreally and triumphantly engineered by the Quays, setting the story in a dusty attic whose toy cupboards and boxes disgorge animals and landscape features, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary with a witty sense of fantasy that any child will adore.

A blue striped tablecloth pulled out from a drawer suddenly becomes the river; green paper reeds hang from washing lines strung on the roof rafters; inside the wardrobe lurks the Wild Wood; in the ceiling hides a snow blizzard ready to shower the audience. Mole tunnels out of a rolled-up rug, a large Windsor chair suddenly turns turtle and becomes Toad's jail.

Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are an equal success. The characters are perfectly conjured, definitely animal-like in their faces, but in their dress they are the two camps of old British yeomen and urban hooligans whose clash in Toad Hall layers the story lightly with class war.

Badger (Adam Cooper) is a sooty, D H Lawrentian figure with whitish-streaked make-up that gives him a sinister, deathlike pallor; shy Mole (Philippa Gordon) has thick specs and a miner's lamp; Will Kemp's gloriously handsome Ratty has the raffish, faintly unwashed, unreliable look of a young Terence Stamp.

Toad's tongue is always flapping for flies, but he's also the most foppish of Edwardian theatrical dandies - I'm not sure whether a toad can be a ham, but Matthew Hart, in a Ferrari-red waistcoat and glorious curls, pulls it off showstoppingly.

Ducks sing and rabbits bob, butterflies are conjured out of hands. The bad guys are smartly done, too - the oikish weasels, vain and bombastic in tight jeans and spiky black Elvis hair, waggling dead stoats out of the wardrobe, and led by the gleeful Luke Heydon.

In fact, there are more layers and signals in the visuals than are answered by the music, dance and text, which are winsome, dull and portentous respectively. The composer, Martin Ward, supplies a stream of relentlessly chirpy English picnic music in George Butterworth's style, choreographer William Tuckett provides no more than capers to the animals, and in Motion's versifications the story makes a heavy-handed business of the narrator, the pleasingly avuncular Anthony Dowell.

Only half a success then, but that half is pretty memorable, and this show will make Covent Garden many new young friends.

Until Dec 22. Tickets: 020 7304 4000
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