The Wind in the Willows is for all those who yearn for the wistful bygone days of Englishness, for riverbanks, picnics on plaid rugs, and Fair Isle patterned knitwear. The new production by ROH2 (as we must now call the department organising the Royal Opera House's satellite events) takes English nostalgia to new and magical heights. It adapts Kenneth Grahame's Edwardian classic into total theatre, where live music, song, dance and narration slot smoothly around each other.
The initial idea came from the show's choreographer and director, William Tuckett, who with the dancer Iohna Loots is the only participant employed by the main house. All the others are either ex-Royal Ballet or freelancers, such as the conductor Yuval Zorn, currently a member of the ROH's Young Vilar Artists programme, or the composer Martin Ward who has arranged an eminently congruous score, inspired by themes from the English revivalist composer George Butterworth.
The designs by the Brothers Quay create an enchanting attic that transforms itself with simple, yet charming means. A strip of blue and white cloth becomes the river; a host of butterflies dip and flutter, attached to the hands of the cast; an old rocking horse pulls the caravan that takes Mole, Toad and Ratty on the open road. Props transmogrify, so that the caravan actually starts off as a wardrobe, while the large chair at Toad's trial flips upside down to become his cell, the wooden posts functioning as prison bars.
Andrew Motion's text is full of satisfying rhymes and as lyrically meditative as you'd expect from the Poet Laureate. However, its narrator, Dowell, needs to project more voice and presence. But the rest of the cast plunge into the spirit of things and double roles with tremendous conviction.
Adam Cooper as Badger is suitably crusty, yet sympathetic, moving with a sinuous, watchful slowness and dressed in a black bowler hat and velvet jacket. Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are mostly human-style clothes, hinting only discreetly at animal characteristics and leaving it more to Tuckett's adept movement and language to portray Kenneth Grahame's anthropomorphic individuals.
Matthew Hart's Toad is a treat: an open-mouthed dandy in loud checks, with chaotic, wide-limbed movement. Mole, who has changed sex for this production (played by Philippa Gordon), wears glasses, as befits her visually challenged species and nearly misses the final bow, having burrowed into a roll of carpet.
There are plenty of comic moments, such as the sudden power cut that plunges the carol singers into darkness; or Luke Heydon's unexpectedly "delightful gaoler's daughter", all chunky shoulders and hairy arms; or the three spiky-haired punks who represent the Weasels and vandalise Toad Hall during Toad's incarceration. "Disgusting!" says the narration about their orgiastic, triumphal feast. "They're over the top, they're simply children who refuse to grow up."
The audience was made up of real children and also children who had refused to grow up for the show's 90 minutes. There was, though, nothing disgusting about the show. We gawped at the falling snow, we cheered when Will Kemp's Ratty saved Mole with his gun. ROH2 hope to take The Wind in the Willows to other theatres. They should snap it up.
To 22 Dec (020-7638 8891)
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