The Wind in the Willows

Royal Ballet, Covent Garden
20 December 2003

by Ismene Brown

Super Furry Animals

The wealth of delightful dance shows to go to makes this Christmas truly an excess of good things. With teenagers and adults tremendously catered for by Matthew Bourne’s shows at Sadler’s Wells and the National Theatre, little ones – and not a few quite old ones – will be overjoyed by the return of last year’s superb staging at the Royal Opera House of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Those super furry animals, Ratty, Mole, Badger, the Weasels and the Rabbits, have been brought to life in the basement-like Linbury Studio Theatre in a magical little show that appears to be pulled haphazardly out of a dressing-up box and yet contrives to conjure up a tweedy, forgotton England.

What charm there is here, as if the elderly chaps from Last of the Summer Wine were putting on Toad of Toad Hall. The river’s unrolled from a wardrobe – a striped blue-and-white cloth. The riverbank rushes are pegged on a clothesline. Ratty’s a natty naval man wearing a little boat and oars around his waist, Mole burrows into a carpet, and snow suddenly shoots out into the auditorium, causing children to scream with delight and grab to touch it.

Above all, of course, there is Toad. I doubt there’s likely ever to be a Toad to top Matthew Hart, a screeching sight with flapping tongue and Little Lord Fauntleroy curls, dressed in Ferrari red and Lamborghini yellow. Hart was born to entertain – he’s a rascally, foppish, irresistible little lad, who tips his young audience into irresistible giggles and leaves parents twitching with recognition. Once he sees that green tin car and hears its “parp-parp”, it’s like Romeo and Juliet – it’s eye-goggling, leg-waving, tongue-waggling love. Hart, a member successively of the Royal Ballet, Rambert and George Piper Dances, is a once-in-a-generation talent, an unforgettable performer.

William Tuckett effectively supplies just the sort of movements these favourite characters want – not so much dancing as cartoon capers.

The original Badger, Adam Cooper, and Narrator, Anthony Dowell, are otherwise engaged this year, but this new cast is even better. The actor David Burke is much more comfortable to be with than Dowell, more whiskery, grandfatherly and informal, while the brooding coal-miner darkness of Badger suits Kenneth Tharp well.

The showstopping Luke Heydon returns, heading the hooligan Weasels in the Elvis hair-dos and tight jeans, waggling some hilariously threadbare stoat carcasses about – then he quick-changes in the Gaoler’s Daughter to flirt most winningly with Toad.

Will Kemp, turned into a star by Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is unfeasibly handsome as Ratty and Iohna Loots is a delightful Rabbit with a knitted hat and floppy ears.

The captivating designs are by those outstanding filmmakers the Quay Brothers and costumier Nicky Gillibrand. The music, derived from George Butterworth, gurgles tunefully along, with a nice little orchestra either side of the stage, and I take my hat off in pleasure to whoever thought of the failing generator at the end of Act. 1.