December 15, 2002

DANCE: The simple joys of messing about

With attractive visuals, nifty choreography and an elegaic feel, The Wind in the Willows is a winner, says David Dougill

There are snowfalls aplenty on ballet stages around the country at this time of year - a staple ingredient of the ubiquitous Nutcrackers.  And below ground, in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, there is another snowy scene - with carol singers - to close the first half of The Wind in the Willows, a new show, conceived and choreographed by William Tuckett, for children of all ages.  The difference here is that the snow also falls on the audience.  There we all were, at a preview I attended last weekend, covered in white speckles.  But when the lights went up at the interval, thay had all vanished - and I won't spoil the surprise by revealing how and why.  It charmed us all.

This is a dance and mime show with text and song as well as music, and delightfully inventive designs.  Tuckett's idea was to set the story in the attic of the author, Kenneth Grahame, which is also the attic of his mind and memories.  A jumble of furniture - wardrobe, clock, chest, stove, off-kilter roof beams - designed by the Brothers Quay, adapts neatly into caravan, railway engine, the Wild Wood and Toad Hall.

Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, no less, has supplied a verse narrative that, as well as describing the characters' actions and feelings, is an elegy for a dream world - a lost world.  "The ancient order shaketh," says the narrator to Toad.  "And what shaketh most is you."  The former Royal Ballet director Anthony Dowell returns to the stage as the narrator/Grahame, in a suit of comfortable old tweed.  Observing from an armchair, or pacing the scene, he reads from a large volume.  This, and the air of nostalgia for an Edwardian idyll, may remind ballet aficionados of the Edward Elgar figure in Ashton's Enigma Variations.

The composer Martin Ward's effective new score for small orchestra (conducted by Yuval Zorn) draws on themes by George Butterworth, the Edwardian musical poet of the countryside, for those sunny days on the riverbank.  But in the dramatic scenes, the music is all Ward's, including episodes set for an operatic trio, the amusing ducks' song (Up Tails All) and Toad's trial, with judge and policemen's chorus - both using Grahame's words.

All this is cleverly done.  But at times, particularly during the busiest scenes, there is a slight battle between the words and the music - Dowell, rattling away at speed, loses out to the band's big effects.  This is one drawback of using a text and it might defeat the children.  But the things they will obviously enjoy are the "visuals" and the enthusiastic performances of the cast - most of them of Royal Ballet provenance.  Willow fronds drop from the attic beams, and a blue-and-white-striped river flows out of the wardrobe drawer.  Will Kemp, as Ratty, with jaunty sailing cap and rakish moustache, rows on in his litttle boat, which he wears around his waist, to be nervously joined by Philippa Gordon, with twitchy nose, moleskin bala-clava and spectacles, as Mole, who has emerged from his burrow, a rolled-up carpet.  Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are attractive, Edwardian-style "human" dress - no animal masks, but occasional animal allusions (whiskers, rabbits' ears).

Adam Cooper, in an old black coat and inseparable from his pipe, is the gruff, sardonic Badger.  Matthew Hart, as Toad - who bursts spectacularly onto the scene from the versatile wardrobe, wearing crimson waistcoat and checked trousers - is ceaselessly hyperactive, with straddle-stepped, toadlike legs, wide eyes, mouth agape and a constantly lolling or flickering tongue.  It's a wonder he can keep this up without gagging or getting lockjaw.  His poop-pooping motorcar is a delighful toy, also worn around his midriff.

Luke Heydon pops up in a bevy of roles - funniest as the jailers' booted, gallumphing "bashful daughter" in the prison scene.  It's here that Tuckett brings off one of his wittiest effects, with Toad "swimming" helplessly behind bars (the back rails of a gigantic upturned chair).  The weasels are fright-wigged, leather-studded bovver boys - the only design anachronism in the work.  The stoats are realistic-looking puppets with snapping jaws:  a more vicious version, you  might think, of Basil Brush.

Tuckett's Wind in the Willows is not the kind of ballet with formal set pieces that might bore children. His dances are nifty, lively and always characterful, and they keep the action moving.  The meditations and musings of Motion and the narrator, though, are fashioned much more for the adults.