Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

The snow is magical. The first act of William Tuckett's Kenneth Grahame adaptation ends with carol singers coming to Badger's door. Fairy lights glow, the singers raise their lanterns and snow falls onstage. Then, wonderfully, it falls on the audience in thick, fluffy, melting flakes. Small children jump up from their seats to catch it.

In this Wind in the Willows, theatrical effects cover the weak patches in the production: the snow makes up for duller words and steps. It's a dance-based version of Grahame's story, with an onstage narrator to introduce the Mole, the Water Rat and their adventures by the river. Martin Ward's music, based on themes by George Butterworth, is carefully English, with settings of the book's songs.

The Quay Brothers' set is an attic, not a riverbank. As the onstage narrator begins the story, characters climb out of the furniture. The Mole wriggles out of a rolled carpet. Ratty skips from behind a cupboard, wearing his little boat strapped round his waist. Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are slightly shabby English tweeds, with fingerless gloves and animal ears or whiskers. The threatening Weasels are teddy boys in jeans.

It's artful, but it does work. The production has particular fun with Toad, Grahame's most famous character, with his reckless passion for new enthusiasms. His gypsy caravan is a wardrobe, with a broken rocking horse put in place to draw it. The irresistible motor car, like Ratty's boat, is worn around the waist. He's arrested in a Keystone Kops chase that bursts right off the stage.

All this goes so far. It misses the quiet warmth of the book, the deeply-felt friendships and Grahame's love of the river. How can you have The Wind in the Willows without a memorable river? Ratty and Mole unravel a bolt of blue striped cloth from a dresser drawer, shake it and skip about on it. There's nothing to suggest their shared companionship, their rapture at messing about in boats.

Tuckett's dances are often sketchy, a few prances and jumps given force by charismatic performers. Matthew Hart's Toad, with green curls and a side parting, stretches his mouth wide and flickers his tongue to catch flies. Mole, Joh Williams, is diffident, likely to drop her shoulders or knock her knees. Kenneth Tharp, as Badger, walks in a weighted half-crouch, slow and impressive. Will Kemp's rather dashing Ratty is the most interesting, raising one eyebrow in moments of confusion. They're fun, but slightly lightweight.

The narration is by the poet laureate Andrew Motion, and it tries much too hard to be poetical. Grahame is lyrical but simple; Motion's text is full of careful Shakespearean references and digressions on the changing world. It's strenuous, long-winded and pitched all wrong for a family show. It didn't engage the children, and it didn't engage me.

This Wind in the Willows is better the further it gets from the river. The second half moves quickly, with court scenes, escapes and fights to reclaim Toad Hall. Tuckett's production isn't moving, but it has thoughtful design, some good dancing and storytelling, plenty of action and energy. And wonderful snow.

To 3 January (020-7304 4000)

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