As well as adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall, AA Milne famously said of Kenneth Grahame’s novel: ‘The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character.’ This Royal Opera House production, which has just transferred to the charmingly intimate Duchess Theatre, may not quite be a test of character – but there’s plenty in here to enjoy.
First to take to the stage is the only non-animal, non-dancing cast member, Tony Robinson (yes, Tony Actual Robinson), who narrates as Grahame himself. Listening to him is like settling into a warm bath, which is appropriate: the first half plays on all that’s homely and familiar about the novel, and seems to appeal mainly to the audience’s sense of nostalgia. Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion is responsible for the narration, which is much-changed – because apparently nobody thought there was anything ironic about making Grahame a character and not putting any of his actual dialogue in that character’s mouth – and seems to be trying to capture the sense of summers remembered from childhood.
That said, it’s actually very moving, not least because it plays so much on the pastoral idyll of Grahame’s novel, its Edwardian safeness, with endless adventures that never end badly, boats on the river and buttered crumpets for tea; things most of the adults in the audience will not really remember from their own childhoods, but from the books they read growing up. I cried about four times before the interval (I know, shut up) but you do have to wonder how much appeal all this rose-tinted daydreamy stuff will have for the kids.
In that sense it’s very much a show of two halves: the first is saccharine and comforting, while the second, which owes more to pantomime, rollicks along at a fair lick and belongs entirely to Toad, here a mad-eyed, appropriately manic Cris Penfold. There are joyous moments throughout, but also a lot of missed opportunities: because it is a dance piece with only the narrator speaking, and not any of the other main players, much of the humour of the novel is lost. For instance, one of Toad’s conceited little songs is sung by the company without his involvement, let alone his sole involvement – which can’t help but make it look like somebody missed the joke.
It’s funny to think that in adapting a children’s book into something ostensibly more high-brow: a ballet, that in the process the humour and the development of the characters have both become a little less refined. Particularly cheap is a sequence in which the Gaoler’s daughter, one of the only female characters in the book, is played entirely for laughs as a ridiculous, hulking figure, a man in unconvincing drag. Still, at least we get Clemmie Sveaas as a gender-blind casting of Mole, and she really is fantastic, bringing physical comedy to Mole’s caution and grace to his exploration of the world; particularly nice are Sveaas’s dance sequences with the excellent Will Kemp as Ratty. They have a lovely chemistry, and the innocence, the sheer goodness of this friendship translates very well to the stage: always the heart of the book, it manages to remain so here, even though we don’t hear them speak.
If this version of The Wind in the Willows feels at times more like an adaptation of other famous adaptations the creative team might have seen, rather than a direct response to the source material, there’s just enough here to make up for that. With beautiful, inventive costume designs from Nicky Gillibrand and some truly magical moments, this is at its heart a charming little adventure and, as such, a real festive treat.