December 23, 2003

Wind in the Willows
By Allen Robertson
Linbury, Covent Garden

THE star of this show is a snowstorm that descends on the audience just before the interval. It is a moment of sheer magic and, judging from the gleeful reactions of all ages, a treat to equal the real thing.
William Tuckett’s playful production of The Wind in the Willows, playing until January 3, is based on incidents from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic. It begins and ends in a dusty attic with an avuncular narrator and his long-ago memories. Tuckett and his designers, the Quay brothers (who are not just siblings but identical twins), turn those memories into a journey of the imagination that comes spilling out of an old chiffonier. A length of silk pulled from its drawers becomes a rippling river, a dusted-off rocking horse pulls a Gypsy caravan, an upturned spindle-backed chair turns into Toad’s jail cell, a toy train is his means of escape from prison.

A model roadster with flashing headlights and loud hooter is the source of Toad’s hyperactive misadventures. Wearing it like a farthingale, Toad dashes around like an Edwardian speed demon pursued by the constabulary. They even chase him through the foyer during the interval.

Matthew Hart’s marvellously manic Toad is eager, yet good-natured. Amazingly his emphatic performance doesn’t hijack the show in the way it so easily could have. Will Kemp’s pukka, granite-jawed Ratty, Kenneth Tharp’s taciturn Badger and Joh Williams’s timorous Mole are all vivid. Luke Heydon turns out to be a chameleon who goes from shy otter to evil teddy-boy stoat. Along the way he’s also a down-market panto dame in the guise of the jaile r’s daughter who makes goo-goo eyes at Toad.

This is all buoyed up by an orchestra of 12 led by Rambert’s music director Paul Hoskins. They sail through a bucolic score compiled by Martin Ward from the music of Grahame’s contemporary George Butterworth.

Ward and Tuckett are adept adapters. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Andrew Motion. The Poet Laureate has penned the narration as a rumination rather than a piece of theatre. It wanders off into “awake but dreaming” byways which might work on the page for adults, but his poetic riffs seem like distractions.

The text produces the show’s only longueurs. It needs some pruning or even to be jettisoned altogether. If your kids already know the story they don’t need the narrator.

The evening’s cleverest little bit of storytelling happens when a map is held up to reveal the crucial words “SEKRET TUNNEL”.