Tuesday, May 28

The Wind in the Willows – Shakespeare North Playhouse

Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical book of the friendship and adventures of a group of woodland animals has been adapted many, many times for stage and screen, but this latest take, adapted by Toby Hulse and directed by Julia Samuels, with musical direction from Sarah Llewellyn, still manages to breath fresh life into the classic tale.

The meaning of the title has been long open to interpretation; tonight it is a sign of impending danger.

Shakespeare North Playhouse’s Cockpit Theatre has been transformed into the round. Atop of a tree stump stage, we meet the chipper Ratty (Keziah Joseph having returned to the role following a rehearsal mishap), Mole (Katie Erich), Badger (Jenny Murphy) and Toad (Dean Boodaghians-Nolan) who take us on a wonderful, vivid tour of life on the riverbank. Boxes on wheels are transformed into boats, cupboards and benches as our troupe whizz around the stage.

Bryony Maguire and Taona Matope round out the group, bringing to life a whole host of wildlife – from frisky ferrets to kazoo-toting ducks to chirpy swallows to a nut-obsessed squirrel that might have Dreamworks’ lawyers’ whiskers twitching.

The core story is still there – Mole, seeking an adventure beyond spring cleaning his home, ventures above ground where he meets the rest of the gang including the avaricious Toad whose head is constantly being turned by the next passing fancy – speedboat to caravan to motorcar.

When Toad ends up in real trouble (his home overrun by the creatures of the wild wood but his prison sentence for dangerous driving changed into being ignominiously trapped in a biscuit tin by children) the gang must come together to save the day and teach Toad (and us) the value of friendship, nature and a true home of one’s own.

This is truly an ensemble piece that not only benefits from the superb musicality, athleticism and comedic muscle power of the actors but from the excellence of the behind-the-scenes team too. Grace Goulding’s movement and fight direction turns sections of the show into a delightful dance, as the flow of action mirrors the natural environment.

More importantly, with the ‘in the round’ staging, it keeps the risk of closing off audience members who find themselves watching from the back to a minimum, with barely a static moment to be seen.

The set, sound, lighting and costumes blend beautifully together to create a palette that is warm and earthy one moment, harsh and wintry the next (and the simplicity of Toad’s biscuit tin prison is a flourish of theatrical brilliance).

It is a captivating watch for young and old alike, with charming musical numbers (the only grumble from tonight is that it can be sometimes difficult to discern lyrics over the live music). Overall, the Wind in the Willows feels like a warm hug and, on a wild, wintry night in January, who could ask for anything more.

For more information, visit https://shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk/

Reviewer: Lou Steggals

Reviewed: 2nd January 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.