If you have had it with the productions of  the Nutcracker that saccarine-coat Tchaikovsky's bitter pill, then it's time to go down to the willow bank and voyage into a magic world along the river.

This is not magic created by large gobs of cash being thrown at stage machinery.  This is magic created by an act of the imagination, a faith in the transcendent power of the theatre.

For it, William Tuckett has gathered a stellar cast:  Adam Cooper (Badger), Matthew Hart (Toad), Pippa Gordon (Mole) and Will Kemp (Ratty), all shining brightly.  They are helped by the remarkable Brothers Quay, designers extraordinaire whose inventiveness and charm is never-ending; singers become ducks simply by wearing stuffed ducks on their heads and walking along a fabric river - art does the rest; butterflies descend, poised on mittens  that open and close to create a ravishing swarm; an oversized chair is turned upside down and becomes Toad's cell.

Tuckett matches this imaginative daring with neat, efficient choreography.

There are comic set-pieces galore - Toad is particularly blessed with a series of gloriously extrovert solos and Matthew Hart relishes every moment of bumptious charm.  There are also sensitive - and comic- passages of homage to Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee, that English pastoral par excellence.

All is ably knit together by Martin Ward's excellent score, which is based on the music of George Butterworth.  Most of it is in reality, Ward's own work, giving Tuckett exactly what he needs.

The one drawback to an otherwise perfect evening is Anthony Dowell as the narrator, who has only two modes:  inaudible and inexpressive.  The sooner he is replaced with a real actor, the better.

Otherwise, this is a show not to be missed. If there is any justice in the world, it will soon be a family staple every Christmas.
                 River dance delight
Messing about in boats:  Will Kemp as Ratty and Pippa Gordon as Mole are part of a stellar cast
Wind in the Willows
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

December 12, 2002

Judith Flanders
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