THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS – DUCHESS, WC2

A TOE-TAPPING TOAD AND SLINKY STOATING

With a caper and a thump and a hippety-hop, a flapping of laundry and a riverbank romp,  the Royal Opera House has dipped a first (elegantly pointed) toe in the commercial waters of the West End.  On and off over ten years, this sweet production by Will Tuckett  has been in the Linbury Studio, beloved by the children of the cognoscenti ballet-savvy.   It has a dreamy score by Martin Ward  based on the composer George Butterworth – a friend of Vaughan Williams.  The narration based on Kenneth Grahame’s book  is by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

Classy stuff:  and now  the diminutive but dignified Duchess fits it like a glove.  Sir Tony Robinson, taking time off from arguing with Michael Gove about Blackadder,  is an avuncular narrator,  sharing a ramshackle attic set (old wardrobes, a rocking-horse, packing-cases) with the wild creatures the book brings to life:  Mole’s first appearance is from a rolled up carpet,  blinking in specs and a miner’s lamp;  Ratty wears his rowing-boat as a bustle  and springy rabbits, ducks and butterflies join the summery dance.  A particular delight is the  first pas-de-deux between Clemmie Sveaas as a bumbling, gradually enlivening Mole and Will Kemp’s spry Ratty  (not for nothing was he Matthew Bourne’s chief Swan).

The animal characters never speak, though three times, gloriously, they sing Grahame’s verses;  the story is carried by Robinson.  At first I felt Motion’s text a bit  over-lush (indeed, the final coda about friendship and memory proves him to be, if possible, an even more soppy Edwardian moralist than Grahame himself).  But  Cris Penfold’s Toad – a green-haired bounder as hyper as a five-year-old on a sugar rush – cuts through the schmaltz  and  by the time the paternal Badger (Christopher Akrill) anxiously puts a rabbit’s ears over its eyes to prevent it seeing Toad’s crash,  I was hooked.   There are slow dreamy passages which are – in the best possible sense – soporific: children need that concentrated gentleness as much as panto larks. Well, by this time of year we all do.
It is also Badger who brings out Motion’s best poetry, evoking his devotion to dark quiet tunnels and “rage against the rush and gaudiness of things”.  But it is Grahame’s own carol, sung by fieldmice with lanterns coming down the aisle in snowfall,  which brought the first sentimental tear to the eye.

Tuckett’s choreography is terrific, gleefully mashing up ballet, tap, mime and the odd dash of capoeira.  Stoats, weasels and an enormous Judge (with paper spills for a wig) are designed by master-puppeteer Toby Olié.  The interval is enlivened by a chase through the auditorium and foyer with Toad in his car and policemen with helmets and whistles.  And then Ewan Wardrop (formerly otter and weasel) becomes a dragged-up gaoler’s daughter in print dress and loud boots, and goes admirably nuts in a frock-swap with the equally frenzied Toad.
My inner six-year-old loved that.

Box office:   http://www.roh.org.uk    020 7304 4000 (no booking fee)
 0844 482 9672 (booking fee)     To   1 Feb

Rating:  four 4 Meece Rating   and a spare balletomouse for luck     Musicals Mouse width fixed

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