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The Wind in the Willows (Newbury)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Kenneth Grahame’s tale of the very English, anthropomorphised animals of the Thames Bank must be one of the best-loved books in the English language, handed down the generations, perhaps starting as bedtime stories. Once I could read for myself, this became one of my most revisited reads.

So it’s intriguing to report that adaptor Toby Hulse has written not so much The as A Wind in the Willows. Rather than accepting the whimsical animals as Grahame wrote them, he’s thought the story through and tried to rationalise Grahame’s rather human types.

So taking little for granted, Hulse has Mole and Rat, whom we meet first, discover they can both speak – and so of course can Badger and Toad. But as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, not all animals are equal – ferrets, stoats and weasels represent a dumb animal underclass. The thoughtless Toad exploits them – he corrals a ferret into pulling his caravan. And they are the feared denizens of the fearful Wild Wood.

And all the animals are animal-sized in relation to humans. So instead of landing in gaol after stealing an automobile, Toad’s car is a toy – and a huge unseen child traps him in a jam jar, so that his escape dressed as a washerwoman, thanks to the kind gaoler’s daughter, and subsequent adventures become a tall tale he makes up.

This may be surprising to purists, but Hulse is an elegant thinker, with a subtle green message too. And under Robin Belfield’s sparky direction the terrific cast make it all work for little ones and grownups alike on Hayley Grindle’s marvellously evocative green and sunshiny set, subtly lit to suggest the river bank in different seasons by Mark Dymock.

Grindle’s costumes are glorious too, a delightful blend of animal fur, facial and elsewhere, and Edwardian exuberance. Howard Coggins’ perfectly ebullient and feckless Toad has a great running theme of different headgear for each new madcap fad.

Philip Buck’s heart-warmingly genial Ratty is a splendid Edwardian gent at leisure in stripey bathing suit and blazer. Steve Watts' magisterial badger boasts a distinctive grey/black streaked mane. Naomi Sheldon’s wide-eyed innocent of a Mole wears a wonderfully Heath Robinson Second World War helmet with useful miner’s lamp.

And Lauren Storer and Jack Beale delight and impress in different guises as all sorts of creatures. I particularly loved Storer’s sexy rabbit with frilly Edwardian drawers peeping beneath her fur and Beale’s equally sexy visiting French Rat, complete with stripey top and red beret.

And the whole cast are superbly versatile actor/musicians in true Watermill style, putting over composer Simon Slater’s songs with verve and sparkle. They kept their young audience and the grownups spellbound throughout.

- Judi Herman


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