December 12, 2002


The signs were good for the Royal Opera House's new Christmas show in the Linbury Studio Theatre.  A choreographer with extensive experience at the helm; a cast of terrific artists, most of them former Royal Ballet dancers; a well-loved children's tale as the source and the services of the Poet Laureate to tell it.

The Wind in the Willows is a treat, thanks to the imaginative sets of the Brothers Quay and the Edwardian costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, which are filled with a sweet nostalgia.  The design concept has the charming look of a child's patchwork, something the kids would cobble together for their own show after raiding their parents' attic.

Props are transformed simply and effectively.  A length of blue-and-white striped fabric is pulled out of a wardrobe drawer and hey presto, we have the river where Mole and Ratty are enjoying their picnic; Toad's prison cell is the overturned chair which previously formed the judge's bench from where his sentence (20 years!) was pronounced.

So what's wrong with William Tuckett's staging?  It's the way the story is told.  The poet Andrew Motion relates Kenneth Grahame's classic tale in gentle musical verse, commissioned poems which colourfully describe the adventures of Toad, Badger,  Ratty and Mole without clarifying them for the uninitiated.

Adults will have no trouble picking up the narrative's impressionistic strands, but children certainly will, and since this is billed as a show for audiences "from ages 5 to 105" it's a problem for the young ones.  It didn't help, on opening night, that bad miking made Anthony Dowell's serene reading of Motion's verse almost inaudible at times.

For a production directed by a choreographer, and Tuckett is a man with no shortage of ideas up his sleeve, it feels surprisingly static.  More dancing and less mime might have helped, although this was clearly meant to be
not a ballet but the Opera Houses's answer to pantomime.

Whatever drive Tuckett's staging has comes from the comic energy of his impressive cast, all of whom so obviously relish the chance to play animals.  Matthew Hart is a sensational Toad, compulsively funny, a clown in the style of Harpo Marx, and when was any dancer asked to spend an entire evening with his tongue hanging out of his mouth?  Hart's manic excursions in his splendid new motorcar, a menace on those quiet English country roads, light up a languishing stage.

Adam Cooper's Badger is another charismatic turn, a dark, tramp-like figure with a pipe and a grouchy temperament.  Will Kemp (Ratty) and Philippa Gordon (Mole) deliver a touching double act as the animal friends.  Luke Heydon probably has the most fun, getting his teeth into Chief Weasel and his frock on for the Gaoler's Daughter.

Martin Ward's commissioned music, inspired by the English folk melodies of George Butterworth, is a pleasant accompaniment to proceedings, although the occasional use of singers is poorly integrated into the action.

You can't argue with the ticket prices 18.50 for grownups and just 6.50 for children under 12.  And the snow flakes are fun.