The Theatreguide.London Review
In The Willows
Palladium Summer 2017
Though big and flashy, this is at core an artistically modest little family entertainment that might satisfy undemanding parents looking for somewhere to park the kids for a couple of hours. I'd rank it a few steps above a mediocre family movie, a few steps below an average Panto.
Julian Fellowes has adapted Kenneth Craham's talking-animals book to make room for songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Like the book, it opens with the pastoral scenes of Rat and Mole enjoying a spring day on the river.
But the plot is soon taken over by the rich and self-indulgent Toad, whose passion for adventure eventually leads him to steal a car and end up in jail. Breaking him out and getting him back to reclaim his mansion from the nasty weasels squatting there takes up the second half of the book and the show.
I've always found Toad more annoying than lovable, and neither author, adaptor, director Rachel Kavanaugh nor actor Rufus Hound do much to make us want to follow and root for him, especially when the far more attractive Mole and Rat are pushed so thoroughly aside. (In this version a fourth major character, the schoolmaster-ish Badger, is peripheralised to the point of hardly registering.)
With Mole and Rat all-but-dropped just as we were beginning to enjoy their company and with Toad thrust upon us with little opportunity to get to like him, and with the Stiles-Drewe songs no more than serviceable and the staging not particularly exciting visually, the first act of this production drags.
Things perk up a bit after the interval. The weasels get a good song and dance celebrating their nastiness, the scene of Toad dressing as a washerwoman to escape jail has some good farcical energy, and the best song in the score expresses Mole's delight in returning to his modest little home after all his adventures.
There are also some fun bits around the edges – a family of hedgehogs afraid to cross the road, a tap-dancing cart horse, and some Christmas carolling fieldmice.
Rufus Hound plays Toad as a blustery egotist, which I think is a mistake, because it is the kind of characterisation audiences are primed to root against rather than for.
The emotional core of the show lies with Simon Lipkin's amiable Rat and especially Craig Mather's boyishly enthusiastic Mole, and despite all the hubbub of the Toad plot the show loses energy whenever those two are not around.
Little kids might enjoy this just for the talking animals and the comic bits, but I suspect that once they get into double-digit ages they'll find it all too tame, while parents will miss the over-the-kids'-heads humour of Pantos.
If the family has already been to Matilda and Annie and Lion King and Aladdin, and if there are no decent Disney movies this summer, The Wind In The Willows might do.
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