(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 6 August)
This new Made in Colchester production by Matthew Cullum uses the Willis Hall stage adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame children’s stories with a new score and lyrics by Rebecca Applin, the Mercury’s resident composer. The cast play the different brass, string and percussion instruments in actor-musician mode.
It’s imaginatively designed in a non-naturalistic fashion by Katie Sykes; the minor animal characters have furry vaguely rabbit-like headpieces but Ratty, Mole and Badger wear, as it were, lay dress. So Sam Pay’s Mole is kitted our in a boiler-suit, Pete Ashmore’s Water-rat has appropriate river edge-wading gear and Kate Adams’ truculent Badger has a properly old-fashioned schoolmarm look.
Dale Superville’s posturing and flamboyant Toad bucks this trend, nattily attired in cutaway coat. Superville is a gifted mime as well as an audience favourite, cascading onto the stage at his first entrance in a positive tsunami of personality. His web-suggestive fingers alone make Badger’s withering put-down description of him as a “backsliding amphibian” really strike home. It’s a joyous performance which appeals to the would-be maverick in most of us, whatever our age group.
Toad’s great rival is the Wild Wooder, to whom Christopher Hogben allows a fine sense of untrammelled malevolence (weasels don’t feature in this version). There are chases, entrances and exits through the auditorium, but these are carefully spaced and the children who join the cast on-stage at the end are greeted in character and each allowed a dance routine of their choice.
It’s overall a magical introduction to theatre and one which really exercises a young imagination to see the natural world in several dimensions. Akin in many ways to our own, with hierarchies and territories. But it remains a wild place, somewhere apart. Things are done very differently there.
Wind in the Willows runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (early evening) until 21 August. There are no Friday or Monday performances but matinées on 11, 13, 14, 18,20 and 21 August.