Mayflower Theatre, Southampton: Until 20th November 2016
London palladium: 17th June 2017- 9th September 2017
Four years ago I was sat in a restaurant of a hotel in Bournemouth with my Dad. We’d been checking out university courses all day and had just finished our evening meal when I turned to him and said: “do you know what would make a fantastic musical? The Wind in the Willows!”
Fast-forward to today (or at least, it was when I started writing this, It’s now three days later… I’ve had a very busy weekend! (See last blog post)) I was sat in the audience at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton waiting for the new musical: The Wind in the Willows to start. (No, I have not produced it, or had anything to do with its production at all. Although maybe one day…)
When I heard that The Wind in the Willows was going to be made into a musical I was excited. When I heard that The Wind in the Willows was going to be made into a musical and that Julian Fellows was writing it, I was ecstatic. I have a lot of respect for him having seen his work previously. Julian is a very talented writer and has a wonderful way of bringing characters to life. He often takes the stories back to the initial writings, doing the original author a great deal of justice, whilst adding a refreshing edge to the often well-known plot. No matter when the original material was written, Julian is able to add contemporary elements to keep the story timeless yet relevant to this day without becoming cliché or venturing too far away from the authentic stories which we all know and love.
If the writer isn’t enough to prick your ears up, then the cast definitely should be. It is only fitting that such a well known and loved story adapted into a highly anticipated musical should have an exceptional cast, and that it did. When a show comes with a cast with names including Fra Fee (Les Miserables) as Mole, and Thomas Howes (Downton Abbey) playing the role of Ratty, along with a handful of other faces that are dotted all over your collection of programmes from the West End, you know you are in safe hands. Undeniably Fra and Thomas stole the show for me as Ratty and Mole; their chemistry was both heart-warming and believable and I really felt raw emotion coming through at certain points. That being said, the entire cast was of an exceptional quality, right down to the acrobatic Kingfisher and the ballet of Otters; each cast member executed their role to a very high standard and completely immersed themselves in their character. In short- they became the animal they were representing, and made the rest of the audience believe it. I will take this moment to briefly mention ensemble member James Gant, whose different character and costume changes I lost count of. His Mr Hedgehog role put a smile on every ones face, (I have no words to describe the charm of the Hedgehogs crossing the road song) whilst his representation of his policeman character was rather comedic too.
The show is wonderfully heart-warming and put me in good spirits for the rest of the evening. There were a few occasions in which I could hear sniffles from around the auditorium- the adorableness of the characters (particularly the mice and hedgehogs) definitely got to a few people! Aside from this essentially being a very cute show about the adventures of the ‘forest folk’ that live by the river, the story also carries significant themes about friendships and the importance of a home, wherever or whatever that may be. These themes are what make the story so timeless, and they are things which would resonate for a five year old as much as they would for a fifty year old.
The costumes were very clever in their design in that there were subtle references to what animal each character was, without them having to wear anything cheesy such as full masks or body suits, which I think would have turned the show slightly pantomime. As an example: the swallows were dressed as air hostesses and they held little cases with a silhouette of a swallow on the front; the foxes had a degree of austerity and affluency in their red velvet jackets, and the weasels looked very sly in their pin-stripe suits and bowler hats, reminiscent of gritty 1950’s gamblers.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were witty with the creation of the music; each animal had a different style of song written for them, and even the ‘baddies’ songs were catchy and charismatic. It was difficult to form any strong dislike towards any of the animals.
The set was another creative aspect that impressed me. The homes of Badger and Mole felt truly warm and homely, and you really felt as though you were entering a cosy room after being out in the harsh cold of the Wild Wood. Toad Hall was splendid in its grandeur, and the level of detail even from where I was sat relatively close to the back astonished me. For a story that relies heavily on the presence of various forms of transport, the set showed no signs of any technical challenge that may have arisen at the prospect of bringing various boats, carts, cars and even a train onto the stage.
This is a heart-warming and good-spirited musical, which is utterly deserving of its West End transfer in June 2017. It would make the perfect early Christmas present to any family whilst it is still playing at the Mayflower in Southampton, or a wonderful summer treat when it opens in London at the Palladium next year. Both ways; this is a musical for any age group and it is not to be missed!