The Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House | Dance reviews, news & interviews
The Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
The accidental magic of an irresistible staging of the Kenneth Grahame classic
Once upon a time... for a child there is always an attic, with a rocking-horse, a wardrobe, an old clock and granny’s huge chair. And there's always a story to be found there about being monstrously bad and naughty, and being forgiven. This is the delight of the irresistible staging of The Wind in the Willows at the Royal Opera House’s subterranean Linbury Studio Theatre.
Out of the cupboard drawer you can drag a stripey river, from the wonky rafters you can pull down green willow fronds, and inside a rolled-up old carpet there sleeps a myopic, shy Mole. Now 10 years old, the production with its familiar anthropomorphs Toad, Ratty, Mole, Badger and the pesky Weasels casts a joy that’s as atmospherically frayed as it is immediately appealing to little children. The characters aren't animals but tweedy fellows of yesteryear, with funny little props to differentiate them - a black nose and whiskers on Otter, white knitted ears on the Rabbits, a boat around the waist of salty seadog Ratty.
Toad has eyewateringly loud yellow checked trousers, but the punk-Elvis Weasels, in their drainpipe denims and black quiffs, have the show stolen away from them by their partners in crime, the Stoats, who are three compellingly funny puppets, mangy and grinning, manipulated dextrously by their punk puppeteers.
A live band behind scenes sends out unrelentingly chirpy teatime music by Martin Ward in the style of the First World War composer George Butterworth, while narrator Will Tuckett - also the choreographer and director of the show - delivers a child-friendly poetic narrative by Andrew Motion that has, in previous revivals, been less lovable than Tuckett here.
Cris Penfold shows unstoppable hubris as little Toad, with the perfect elastic mouth to make you sense the Toad within the boy
The show conquers because of the Quay Brothers’ inspired attic setting and Nicky Gillibrand's enchanting costuming, but it's also probably never been so well cast as in this fourth time round. You mentally invent relatives in the parts - Will Kemp, the original Ratty, now has a slightly worn and cheesy edge to his Errol Flynn glamour, like a raffish older brother, and Clemmie Sveaas's adorable performance as Mole suggests some shy, loving aunt. Cris Penfold shows unstoppable hubris as little Toad, flaunting his noisy car and his dandy blond curls like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and blessed with the perfect elastic mouth to make you sense the Toad within the boy. (Penfold pictured left, by Johan Persson)
Most scene-stealing of all is the shape-shifting Luke Heydon, swiftly slipping from bumbly Otter to slinky Chief Weasel to raunchy Gaoler’s Daughter with effortless charisma and mastery of the evil smirk. The scene between him as the Gaoler’s Daughter, wrapped in a floral pinny, with generous bosom, and the wheedling Toad, desperate to get out of jail, is hilariously done by the pair, complicit in anarchy as the cops swarm about waving their truncheons like they do in comics. And this new revival also has a topical new amusement due to advances in puppetry, involving the Toad’s trial and the bunraku expertise of Toby Olié.
Everything is lightly done with a free hand with Grahame's characters. The characters don't exactly dance as such - it's more of a Laurel and Hardy silent-movie capering. But from the group alchemy of perfect collaborators, this delightful show has the stardust of unplanned magic over it. In this case you may actually have to kill to get a ticket, as the run of 30 performances is close to sold out.
- The Wind in the Willows is performed in the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House till 5 January
Watch the production trailer
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
New work by Liam Scarlett stands above offerings from Wheeldon, Morris and Liang
An ill-conceived new ruling could have disastrous effects on the dance community
The Americans on tour in pieces by Tomasson, Balanchine and Robbins
Impressive dose of Russian tradition whets appetites for forthcoming London season
Talent will out at elite academy's annual graduation showcase
First-rate work, high energy and musical glories from a little-known Moscow company
Musical values outstanding, decor and dance not bad in tribute to Diaghilev opera-ballet
NDT1 deliver another fine display of contemporary ballet
This South African reworking is serious and funny in equal measure
Arts must stop moaning and politicos must trust the public's love of art, says culture chief
Vogel and Cojocaru as tragic lovers introduce a stunning new partnership
Three early works by Sir Frederick Ashton have plenty of charm, but is a 'light touch' ever too light?