The Wind in the Willows, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

A riveting ride down the river

Lynne Walker
Friday 02 January 2004 01:00

Kenneth Grahame's collection of bedtime tales about the adventures of four animal friends lose none of their timeless charm in Alan Bennett's adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, originally made for the National Theatre. The highlighting of the class division between commoners and gentry, the old-boy network dominating the judicial system, and the changes affecting turn of the century British life - such as the advent of the motor car - seem nearly as pertinent today. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse they certainly raise a laugh from appreciative adults, who enjoy Jeremy Sams's additional lyrics perhaps as much as Bennett's faithful take on Grahame, while younger members of the audience sit enthralled by the adventures of the congenial characters of Ratty, Mole, Badger and the portly incumbent of the waterside residence (all mod-cons yet with parts back to the 14th century, as the estate agent would have it) of Toad Hall. Below Dick Bird's curvaceous river bank - housing a watery labyrinth of molehills, lairs and tunnels - is a pastoral world that continues to enchant.

In Ian Brown's technically ambitious production, in Bennett's native Leeds, we feel like innocent Mole. Never before have we seen such a river or enjoyed such a picnic or taken such an enchanting boat ride. Like him, we smell the fear of the wide world beyond the dark woods and marvel at the horse-drawn caravan, pooping car and puffing train that feature in this dramatisation of the escapades of Mr Toad. Throw in a daring jailbreak, encounters with gypsies and washerwomen, a battle with gangland weasels, and a kaleidoscopic musical background of instrumental groups and singers onstage, and you have the perfect festive family show.

None of this would work, however, were it not for the uncanny way these actors exhibit their uniquely defining animal characteristics. Mole may have been partly inspired by Grahame's own personality but Christopher Pizzey, quaintly bespectacled, faintly bemused and soft hearted, is a deadringer for Bennett himself. Ben Fox is a sleek Rat of the old-school variety, turned out in tweeds and twitching his whiskers as he darts to and fro, fussing over his small mammal friend. The urbane Badger, looking like a public school clone of Billy Connolly, is given an authoritative portrayal by Cameron Blakely, clearly born into the officer rank, leading the charge against the sleazy vermin who have taken over Toad Hall.

In Toad, played so splendidly by Malcolm Scates, Grahame - or was it Bennett? - seems to have pre-figured the more lovable characteristics of another victim of his own fertile imagination, Jeffrey Archer. In his reliance on his charm and firm belief that land and money and the right connections are the most important assets a chap can have, our amphibian friend walks and talks more like a member of a gentlemen's league in danger of becoming extinct than a species that risks being squashed by speeding traffic. And why the dangerously smooth Chief Weasel, Ian Conningham, should remind me of Neil Hamilton is another mystery, since it's weasily seen they are stoatally different.

Dominic Green doubles as a fabulous Brummy horse, all chomping words and wittily disconsolate asides, and an energetic Otter. The scurrying squirrels, prickly hedgehogs, fluffy bunnies, carol-singing mice and teeth-baring vermin, as well as the stalwart humans peopling the wider world, make an invaluable contribution to the show. It wasn't only Mole who thought his happiness was complete at the prospect of taking a turn downstream to Toad Hall. This exquisitely-detailed Willows makes delightful theatre for anyone, of any age.

To 14 February (0113 213 7700)

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