If there’s are any stars in this outstanding, wow-factor ensemble show they are Timothy Bird, set and projection designer and Aideen Malone, lighting designer. Between them they create a moving river, a sinister wood and a busy book-shelved home for Badger – among other things. It all fills the Rose’s big thrust/arena playing space and you’re riveted from the moment you take your seat.
Adapted and directed by Ciaran McConville, the Rose’s talented director of learning and participation, this The Wind in the Willows uses a central cast of six adults supported by a team of twenty-three of the venue’s youth theatre members. On press night it was the red team and, my word, they did well.
McConville’s version presents a colourful cast of animals which don’t usually appear in adaptations of The Wind in the Willows. Amelie Abbot, for example, is outstanding as the diminutive Doris Dormouse who is frightened of everything but who eventually finds the courage to stand up for what is right and twice hits the terrifying Putin-esque Chief Weasel (fabulous performance by Oliver Smith) over the head with a saucepan. And Milly Stephens is a show-stealer as Kitten Rabbit who, tiny as she is keeps asking pertinent questions and making hilariously penetrating comments. We also get timid hedgehogs, fussy crows, a delightful (Billy Rilot) otter cub and more along, of course, with ferrets and weasels. Three teenage actors function around the action as narrators and McConville’s script remains very close to Grahame’s original novel so we get a lot of his colourful emotive language – nothing is dumbed down in this show which is as intelligent as it is accessible.
There’s fine work from the adults too. Emma Pallant is a Penelope Keith-style female Ratty – tall, lanky, attractive, sometimes stentorian, usually forthright but always kind and decent. Gary Mitchinson’s bespectacled north country mole in search of adventure, but in need of friends, is appealing in a black velvet jacket. Derek Elroy’s Badger is warm and, eventually moving once his work is complete. There’s an enjoyable performance from Joy Brook as the no-nonsene but “good egg” Mrs Otter and, Michael Taibi is suitably wicked as the leading stoat. And, of course, Jamie Baughan both has, and provides, lots of fun as the irrepressible “poop-pooping Toad. Baugham is the largest character on stage in every sense and he sings the patter songs, provided by musical director/composer Eamonn O’Dwyer, immaculately in a resonant bass voice.
There are a lot of issues in The Wind in the Willows and McConville has adeptly pointed them up without labouring them. Yes, you leave the theatre chuckling (rhetoric beginning “Friends, weasels, countrymen” was my favourite line) and humming but also reflecting on bullying, friendship, teamwork, leadership, forgiveness, death – and a whole lot more.
If you want to see a glitteringly entertaining, moving, thoughtful, funny family show, get yourself to Kingston.
Photo: Mark Douet