The Playhouse needed to do something special to match last Christmas’s feelgood revival of Annie. But Ian Brown, making a speedy return as director to the house he left just this year after more than a decade at its artistic helm, comes within a mole’s whisker of achieving that formidable goal.
His Wind in the Willows faithfully evokes a kinder, gentler world – a land of lost content – where financiers wrote wistful tales of riparian japes as opposed to trading unfathomable credit derivatives and bankrupting whole continents.
Author Kenneth Grahame continued to work as secretary of the Bank of England for much of his writing career but an extraordinary shooting incident in which he was gunned down inside the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street by a “socialist lunatic” prompted him into publishing these enduring Edwardian fables which he based on the bed time stories he told his sickly young partially-sighted son, Mouse.
They are an extraordinary testimony to a father’s love in an age we tend to consider to be emotionally barren – especially for men - and Alan Bennett’s 1990 adaption for the National Theatre has become a modern classic, artfully and amusingly exploring Grahame’s hankering for the disappeared world of his childhood idyll beside the Thames.
There is as much fun here for adults as there is for children. Mr Toad is one of the great comic creations – lovable and annoying by equal measure – and Paul Kemp is completely squat and delightful in the role. Jack Lord is top hole as Ratty and while it is impossible to fault any of the cast I particularly enjoyed Tom Jude’s much put upon Brummie horse Albert. An imaginative revolving set allows the action to process by a variety of means of transport - river, caravan, car and train whilst neatly bringing us back to the cosy warmth of the animal’s burrows.
But it is the music which really glues the various strands together. The players do not miss a note and the ensemble pieces bring together honking saxophones, violin, banjo and voice are particularly enjoyable.
The final confrontation between our furry heroes and the evil, debauched weasels of the Wild Wood is a frenetic affair that spills from the stage and rages high up into the seats of the Quarry theatre. Brown made the Christmas show a centrepiece of the Playhouse’s calendar and this is a fitting swansong to his tenure.
West Yorkshire Playhouse until 19 January