It wouldn't be hard to be curmudgeonly about the WYP's offering of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for Christmas. For a start, it's not particularly a Christmas show - although it does offer a charming scene of snow falling over carol singers to send us glowing into the interval.
And then, it's chastening to recall that there is much inner city and council estate deprivation within a mile radius of the Playhouse - what are those members of its community supposed to make of this Edwardian rural idyll with its prep school ethos? Speaking of which, it would appear that only rabbits (wouldn't you just know it?) and squirrels are programmed to procreate, since everyone else on the riverbank and in the wild wood is manifestly male. Not a lot in it for the distaff side, don't you know?
But I say, hang on, chaps, the script is, after all, written by the Playhouse's adopted house hack Alan Bennett and so stuffed like a plum pudding with killer corny jokes. "I'm Toad - you can't frogmarch me!" "You need a chauffeur. Get a hedgehog - they're good on the road." That sort of stuff.
Add to this a glorious set by Dick Bird - whose rolling countryside (a la Teletubbies) on two revolves reveals the river bank and the interiors of Moley's, Ratty's and Badger's bolt-holes, then with sudden splendid perspectives offers a moon, a distant (and later much closer) Toad Hall and, delightfully, a far puffer-train chugging along the cyclorama before steaming down full-sized from upstage. With all this in a production by Ian Brown totally dedicated to being good fun, reservations are easily squashed.
Christopher Pizzey's shy, atavistic, but enthusiastic Mole is the least conspicuous of the four leads, with tones of Bennett himself suggesting an intelligence which far outstrips those of his colleagues. Rat (Ben Fox) is briskly efficient and sociable, and the Badger of Cameron Blakely is suitably prefectorial and a bit remote. All three of them are just slightly low-key, as is, more upsettingly, Malcolm Scates's Toad who blusters but falls short on the bumptiousness scale.
The eye-catchers are the cameos. Dominic Green contributes two, as Otter and, quite outstandingly, as Albert the Horse - in both of which he was clearly greatly assisted by movement director Faroque Khan (as indeed was Toad). Ian Connigham's Chief Weasel is a superbly flash East-ender and veteran Peter Laird throws in a trio of brilliantly crafted miniatures as the magistrate, train driver and gypsy.
The gelling agent in Brown's fine ensemble is a wandering gypsy band of actor/musicians who materialise informally along the way to co-ordinate proceedings with the songs of Jeremy Sams. At two hours and a half, plus interval - which the wisdom of the years suggests is far too long for a kids' show - this is clearly a risky enterprise. But the house was full of kids and not one of them stirred until the very last creature departed the stage.
- Ian Watson