CHRISTCHURCH REVIEW: The Wind in The Willows (Court Theatre)

Review by Charlotte Filipov

[Forest-dwelling Fantasia]

The Court Theatre’s The Wind in The Willows follows the ever-loved classical tale of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall. The script was adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s story by Alan Bennett in 1991, bringing a renewed lens to the original tale, now nearly thirty years established in theatre. Director Ross Gumbley has taken the show to a new place with his cast and vision. He transports the audience to an English woodland evocative of the nostalgic excitement and fantasy of Beatrix Potter, occasionally giving way to a haunted, dark territory with its crippled, shadowy trees that seem to move by themselves. 

Gumbley’s cast has taken on this family-favourite play with light-heartedness and integrity. The audience is enthralled with surprise and delight with the seasonal pantomime, which, beyond carolling field mice, is not particularly seasonal. Bennetts’s adaptation leaves out Kenneth Grahame’s side-stories of emotional development that involve Mole and Rat’s riverside perambulating in favour of bombastic Toad-oriented action. This allows  plenty of space for the elaborate effects that encapsulate all of the stand-out qualities of the production team.

The production uses a constant sense of motion, nestling the company of supporting animals in every nook of Julian Southgate’s elaborate, transforming set. The massive Edwardian archway with rabbit-holes and door-ways and windows houses a revolving cast of mischievous and sweet forest-dwellers, the stage-magic so well choreographed entire sets seem to appear out of thin air. The cast artfully convince me of my presence in their pastoral home, one has a real sense of Grahame spying through and watching the mini-animal-society play out before his eyes.

Eilish Moran’s Mole is played with a kind, naive approach alongside Gregory Cooper’s cultured and particular Ratty. Cooper delivers warmth and ease to an otherwise puzzling and new world for little Moley. Old Badger played by Tom Trevella provides a slightly creepy, though reassuring and courageous old favourite.

Newcomer to Bennett’s adaptation, Albert the Horse is performed in an Eeyore-like, weary manner by Andrew Todd. His delivery and tiresome attitude entertains and is a welcome addition to the familiar tale. Todd assumes a solid stage presence and consistently inspires tittering laughter from the audience with his despondent tone and proletariat jokes.

The antagonist characters inhabiting the Wild Wood are costumed by Stephen Robertson in tea-shade spectacles and rainbow bell-bottoms peeking out from long fur coats. Fergus Inder as the Head Ferret, Kathleen Burns as right-hand Norman, and Isaac Pawson as the Fox among others, make up the mischievous little arm of back-alley thieves and mischief-makers.

All the while, Cameron Rhode’s ecstatic, manic Toad presents each character with a situation of chaos and disruption. Rhode’s Toad’s obsession with motor-cars speaks indirectly of the futurist manifesto published in 1909, only a short time after Kenneth Grahame’s original Wind in The Willows in 1906. 

“…the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire…”

Toad of Toad Hall’s manic spectacle is something that inspires a hilarious joy and excitement. In a play that deals with timeless themes and lessons learned by all, there isn’t a dull moment, always some sense of the Piper’s forgotten magic in the air. Gumbley’s plentiful, lush rendition of The Wind in The Willows is sure to inspire, leaving little left to the imagination with its ample production. The excitement and wonder delivered with this production is sure to delight the families I imagine will be visiting it together over its summer run.

The Wind in the Willows plays at The Court Theatre until 18 January 2020. 

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