The Wind in the Willows

New Vic Theatre until Sat 26 Jan

Mole awakes from a deep winter’s sleep to a chorus heralding a new season of adventures, “With a spring in its step, with a song in its heart.” After a token nod towards spring cleaning her home, a fabric ‘tunnel’ descends from above and Mole ‘climbs’ up it to emerge in a beautiful world where new encounters beckon.

All the elements are in place from the very start of this hugely enjoyable Wind in the Willows: imaginative staging, beautiful music, familiar and charming if unlikely characters, and expeditious storytelling. The cast and creative team sweep us up in this super festive-season family show at The New Vic, and from start to finish they don’t take a false step.

Mole (Alicia McKenzie) and Ratty (Richard Keightley) meet Mrs Otter (Sophia Hatfield)

Mole soon teams up with Ratty and her delight on discovering the river for the first time is matched by that of the audience. Projected and subterranean lighting on the central stage is strikingly effective, the sudden appearance of otters enchanting. Ratty’s famous insistence that there is nothing half so worth doing as simply messing around in boats feeds into a delightful song “Nothing so nice as a boat afloat.”

The two visit Toad, for whom there’s nothing so nice as an amble down a country lane in a gypsy caravan (cue song: “Toad, Toad, the open road”) — until a passing car scares the horse and forces the three friends into a ditch. Thereafter Toad can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle.

Toad (Rob Witcomb)

When Mole visits elusive Badger in his secluded, though beautifully lit, sett the gang of friends is complete – though not before Mole stumbles on an assortment of weasels, ferrets, squirrels and foxes who would like to be the chief antagonists. “We’re the Wild Wooders, your worst nightmare,” they sing.

Teresa Heskin’s adaptation keeps most of the key elements of the original story by Kenneth Grahame – the house arrest of Toad by his friends for his own good, his tricky escape, his foolhardy theft and crashing of yet another motorcar, his trial and twenty-year gaol sentence, his second escape disguised as a washerwomen, and the recapture of Toad Hall from the occupying rabble.

Fox (Kieran Buckeridge) and riff-raff in Toad Hall

So there’s a great deal more going on than just messing around in boats (and cars). But the great charm of Wind in the Willows lies in its characters as much as its incidents and director Peter Leslie Wild, well served by an admirable cast, makes the most of them.

Alicia McKenzie is appealingly enthusiastic but naïve as Mole; Richard Knightley as Ratty lets you know that you are in dependable hands; and Emma Manton’s Badger exudes bossy wisdom and learning, making bold decisions backed by quotes from her favourite texts – “Life is nothing without friends: Cicero.”

At the centre of all the mishaps, Rob Witcomb plays Toad with a delicate touch for all his arrogant bungling. He’s conceited and wealthy yet remains generous and human in his misdemeanours. He’s more an impulsive and mischievous schoolboy of any time than an Edwardian grandee, despite his period costume. His slippery-slope contemplation of a tempting escapade behind the wheel must resonate with many a youngster weighing what they should do against what they want to do: “There can’t be any harm in looking… I wonder if it starts easily?… There can’t be any harm in just sitting in it for a minute… I wonder what the turning circle is like?”

Toad in disguise on the train.                                                    All images by Andrew Billington

Witcomb’s hapless race from the police along the roof of a moving train is a gem of physical theatre, vividly realised.

While Alice in Wonderland draws on surreal magic and Peter Pan on myth and magic, Wind in the Willows – the third great children’s classic from that period – is more straightforwardly absurd. The adventurers are young humans, despite the odd tail here and there, and they have a surprisingly human tale to tell.

Composer and Musical Director Matt Baker complements the whimsicality of the play with a seemingly constant flow of songs and instrumental music. They move through and around the action like water – bearing along, reflecting, bubbling occasionally with energetic humour. Multiple styles avoid inviting period nostalgia, instead ranging from timeless folk through saloon-bar honkytonk and cello lament to a touch of brassy jazz. Instruments are picked up, played, and put down so frequently, and in such variety, they seem a part of the cast.

Adapter and director give us a suitably festive ending. A company of local schoolchildren, having made an admirable contribution throughout, sing warmly of “Friends together, bringing you joy.” Then, when I thought I’d spotted the last of the score of different instruments, out came a set of silver handbells to embellish the carol with jubilance.