The maverick Mr Toad first appears at the London Palladium as bit of a blur. Audiences catch a glimpse of him as he races across the stage in his latest speedy contraption. His eccentric antics and larger than life character steal the show at the musical production of Wind in the Willows.
Central to the play is the friendship between Mole and Rat. Played by Simon Lipkin, Rat is a sensible, steady going animal, with few ambitions beyond the river he calls home. He strikes up a friendship with the innocent and enthusiastic Mole, showing him the ways of the animal kingdom. It’s a comical take on the 1908 Kenneth Grahame novel.
Rufus Hound puts in an inspired performance as the wealthy Toad of Toad Hall. His primary trait is excitability, and he is constantly moving and pulling faces, almost like a dance. He has a ‘groovy’ air about him, similar to Austin Powers.
Badger is a benevolent and strong leader, well respected amongst the animals. Gary Wilmot plays the character as sober minded, with a keen sense of fairness. The actor portraying the wicked Chief Weasel achieves a lot through mannerisms and movement. His tongue darts about his mouth and his dancing style is wild and intimidating.
The music carries the show. The songs are ingeniously written, full scale pieces, designed to stay in your head for days afterwards. They draw upon styles as diverse as glam rock and Gilbert and Sullivan, and are frequently raucous and uplifting. There are quieter, more subtle songs too, such as when Mole and Rat sail down river together for the first time. The band were positioned in a pit below the stage – something I haven’t seen for years.
The choreography is outstanding. Big numbers like ‘We’re Taking Over the Hall’ see the villainous animals fill the stage. In another scene, dancers strutted around a spinning car with motor racing flags. The actors are sharp and striking in their brilliantly colourful costumes. The weasels and Mr Toad look dapper in contemporary style suits, whereas Mole, a more lowly creature, appears in a scruffy ill-fitting vest jumper.
The proportions of the set are intentionally distorted. Toad hall and the courthouse are sort of bent inwards, creating an otherworldly, cartoonish effect. The set undergoes remarkable transformations throughout the show, seamlessly moving from one location to the next.
The Wind in the Willows is an enduring tale which continues to delight readers old and new, over a hundred years after it was written. The play ends in a thrillingly unexpected way, with Mr Toad taking his love of speed to the next level. It’s a family show – not too scary for the kids, but not so tame that the parents will fall asleep.