Review: The Wind in the Willows (Theatre Royal Plymouth)

Rufus Hound leads the cast as Toad in this new musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s novel

Kenneth Grahame’s charming tales of the riverbank – The Wind in the Willows – has had many incarnations: as a stage play, musical, film, TV show and even animated. Its continued reinvention is a testament to the enduring appeal of the adventures of Toad and his friends Badger, Ratty and Mole.

This shiny new musical comes with book by Julian Fellowes and music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the creative team behind Mary Poppins and the recent Chichester Festival Theatre hit Half a Sixpence. The Wind in the Willows sits comfortably in their company with its cheery melodies and clean lyrics, and an old-fashioned – but not out-dated – charm.

In a delightful way the show echoes the Edwardian era in which it was written. It is quintessentially British – scenes of messing about on the river, picnics in the country, the swallows returning home for the summer and animals foraging for food in the fields and hedgerows.

This production (set and costumes by Peter McKintosh) is purely pastoral and director Rachel Kavanaugh keeps it simple from the opening number, "Spring", which introduces us to all the "nice" animals of the countryside, otters, field mice, hedgehogs.

Then we meet practical, sensible Ratty (Thomas Howes) and shy Mole (Fra Fee) on the river in "Messing About in a Boat" and Mrs Otter (Sophia Nomvete) who warns us of Toad’s latest obsession in "Speed". It makes us instantly want to meet the reckless, devil-may-care owner of Toad Hall.

But first we must venture into the scary Wild Wood to meet wise old Badger (David Birrell). At last we are at the portico of Toad Hall and finally in the company of the irrepressibly enthusiastic Mr Toad (Rufus Hound) and off on an adventure in a gypsy caravan.

Just at the point when things are wavering dangerously close to being twee, in burst the Wild Wooders guided by Chief Weasel (Neill McDermott) dressed like a spiv with his striped suit and pork pie hat. Shows like this need a good baddie and we are not disappointed by the foxes, weasels and stoats.

The Wind in the Willows is good, clean, family fun – just look at the song sheet: "A Friend is Still A Friend", "A Place to Come Back To", "The Wassailing Mice", "As If in a Dream". These are songs to put a smile on your face.

Toad works best when he’s being silly – dressed up as a washerwoman or lusting after a new car – and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of this. But this show does exactly what you want it to do. It’s beautifully constructed with simple songs, well sung and lashings of charm. The Wind in the Willows is well on the way to becoming a classic musical.

The Wind in the Willows is at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until 22 October, The Lowry, Salford from 27 October to 6 November and the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from 10 to 20 November. A West End run is anticipated.