The Wind in the Willows (Vaudeville Theatre)
The Riverbank and Wild Wood come vividly to life in this charming family tale
For a show that began life back in 2002, Wind in the Willows has just kept on growing. Its mix of dance and storytelling proved a long-running success for the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre, and after winning the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Family and Entertainment, it's now enjoying a second West End run.
In Will Tuckett's adaptation, Kenneth Grahame narrates the story - but not in his own prose. Instead, former poet laureate Andrew Motion brings Grahame's own imaginative journey to life through lyrical verse. Tony Robinson played Grahame last year, but the role now belongs to Alan Titchmarsh in his first professional stage performance. He might be a newcomer but you wouldn't know it - from his opening lines he's warm, engaging and down-to earth, just as you'd expect from a man so close to nature in his day job.
The dancers must love these wild animal roles. Despite being dangerous, reckless and insufferably conceited, Toad is one of fiction's best-loved creations. Cris Penfold sets aside Toad's worst faults and concentrates instead on his exuberantly childish delight in life, and his fascination with new toys, whether a horse-drawn caravan or a spluttering thundering motor-car. The result is a riotous and completely charming characterisation that combines balletic grace with the frenetic energy and darting movements of a hyperactive amphibian.
Ratty, the stalwart friend and fierce gunman, is danced by the poised, elegant Martin Harvey, and muscular sinuous Ira Mandela Siobham is splendidly aggressive yet protective as Badger. And if there was ever a dancer who could bring gossamer grace to the stage while dressed in baggy brown trousers and a woolly balaclava, then it's Sonya Cullingford. From her first snuffling emergence into the sun as Mole, to the the beautiful lifts from Ratty and Badger, Cullingford invests Mole with a simplicity and innocence that's very endearing.
Ewan Wardrop is the go-to man for character comedy. He struts and sneers as the rockabilly Chief Weasel, but looks even happier stripping down to his petticoat and boots as the Gaoler's beefy daughter who only has eyes for Toad.
Martin Ward has taken the lyrical music of English composer George Butterworth as the starting point for his dreamy riverbank sequences, and zipped it up for the fierce Wild Wood scenes. Played live by Chroma Ensemble, the music is beautifully judged and paints just as vivid a picture of the countryside's many moods as the Quay Brothers' multi-tasking set.
Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are outstanding, from Badger's richly gleaming coat to Toad's flashy waistcoat and the adorably bouncy ears of the rabbits. Toby Olie's puppets also bring the sly slinkiness of the stoats to life.
With a stunning snowscene, twinkling lights and the warmest of tales of friendship and loyalty, this is a hugely energetic, entertaining family show that's now firmly sealed its place as a Christmas classic.
Wind in the Willows runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 17 January 2015