Alan Bennett’s sardonic, semi-autobiographical 1991 National Theatre adaptation of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ was pretty much the last word on stage versions of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless children’s novel.
Unfortunately that hasn’t actually stopped other people from adapting it. On the page, Grahame’s story of bickering woodland animals remains a sweet memento of a different age. But Bennett is the only adaptor to see it as anything more than a nostalgic trifle.
This musical from Julian Fellowes, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe feels adrift in 2017, a supposedly family-orientated show that’s a bit long and scary for little kids, and too slow moving and stuffed with Gilbert and Sullivan-esque wordplay to be of great interest to older ones.
ICYMI: gobby Rat (Simon Lipkin), nerdy Mole (Craig Mather) and wise Badger (Gary Wilmot) are a trio of pals who are increasingly concerned about the mountingly irresponsible behaviour of their minted buddy Toad (Rufus Hound), who is ploughing his inheritance into a series of motor cars, all of which he crashes. In a half-hearted stab at wokeness, our heroes are joined by Mrs Otter (Denise Welch), a gender-reversed take on a minor character from the book who’s given a beefed-up role and rewritten storyline, but slots in clunkily amongst the established characters (why not just make one of the leads female?).
The plot hoovers up large sections of Grahame’s meandering tale, but despite Hound’s game mugging, it never really makes us feel any sympathy for supposedly loveable rogue Toad. Indeed, it feels a bit tone-deaf in the current climate to have a show that blindly expects us to root for the self-serving rich guy. ‘All property is theft!’ declares Neil McDermott’s spivvy Chief Weasel as he moves his clan into the vacated Toad Hall: Fellowes probably thought he was putting in a smart bit of snark, but to be honest it’s all a pretty good advert for a socialist revolution.
Mainly, though, it’s just a bit bland, with inoffensive characters meeting wordy songs, and too many fillery nods to minor events from the book. There are a couple of spirited numbers from the villains, but there’s a lack of any great vision behind it all – no twinkle in its eye, just a complacent trundling out of a century-old story with the expectation it’ll be lapped up by default.