It is springtime on the riverbank at York Theatre Royal, where the creative team has clearly made a real effort to create an enchanting world for a younger audience. Starting in the foyer, dotted with bright plastic flowers and pretty, snaking clusters of ivy, and on into the specially modified theatre, the proscenium stage extended to create an in-the-round performance space, the scene is charmingly set for a jaunt in the countryside.
And Wind in the Willows, adapted for stage from Kenneth Grahame’s book by Mike Kenny, certainly is a jaunt, albeit a rather sluggish one to begin with, as we spend the first half pottering about the riverside with Mole and Ratty, meeting Badger and the infamous Mr Toad along the way. Thankfully, when Mr Toad develops his “obsession” with the motor car after the interval, his haphazard adventures provoke a strong narrative thread at which point directors Damian Cruden and Katie Posner manage to pick up the pace nicely.
York Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame regular Martin Barrass plays Mr Toad’s self-centred pomp with cheek and flair, a hilariously wide, toothy grin splashing across his face in moments of poop-pooping childish delight.
Clever costumes, by Catherine Chapman and Lydia Denno, are a real character aid: in straw boater and brown pinstripe waistcoat (plus tail, of course), Ratty is a fine fellow in the Oxford punting mould, his generosity and good nature conveyed with spirit by Jonathan Race. Robert Pickavance’s Mole is especially endearing with his waddling gait and padded bottom. As gruff Badger, wheezing along in large pantaloons and Edwardian jacket, a Cruella De Vil-esque streak of white through her bouffant dark hair, Sarah Parks is a world-wise and stern but heart-warming figure.
The animals’ friendship and camaraderie are buzz words of the day, and the vignettes of riverside life are delightful, but to ensnare the attention of young children what you really need is a good fight scene, and the small boy behind me was overjoyed by the battle between our riverside friends and the mean weasels from the Wild Woods.
In this respect, Michael Lambourne stands out from the solid supporting cast for his strong comic abilities as Chief Weasel, alongside several fabulous smaller roles like the lisping, pompous judge who condemns Toad to “nineteen... round that up to twenty years!” in jail.
Throughout, the action is peppered with lovely supporting performances from the Young People’s Company, from hopping rabbits, to cute as a button hedgehogs and quizzical, leering weasels.
Christopher Madin’s musical composition pipes and croons the laziness of riverside life, played on stage by Kenji Watanabe (Rabbit) on accordion, Emilia Brodie (Otter) on the violin, and Richard Mark’s Mr Fox on woodwind. Although generally it is more effectively interwoven in the second half, the jazzy “open road” number of the first act certainly makes for a rousing encore at the close of what is an inventive, lively production in the finest storytelling tradition.