Even admitting, as you surely do, that The Wind in the Willows is the finest book ever written in the English language, its politics are not what they could be. The story of comfortable loafer Ratty and his live-in rodent Mole starts innocently enough, with their resigned toleration of local eccentric millionaire Mr Toad. But when the Wild Wooders get involved – a feral, house-stealing mash-up of author Kenneth Grahame’s best worst nightmare of the shiftless and vicious working classes – it all goes up the Suwannee. Toad’s eventual incarceration and rehabilitation see him perform not a radical redistribution of his inherited wealth, but a sort of assumed piety and humble good grace. Toad as beneficent manorialist ruler with time to give an ear to his serf’s petty grievances and triumphs.
So the marriage of Willlows with Downton-scribe and more-or-less self-confessed cunt Julian Fellowes was never going to be a happy one. Described in a programme biog as ‘living in London and Dorset’ and with his only son named after a falcon, he’s certainly as rich as Toad, if not as Croesus, and twice as tedious as either of them. Happily, he’s barely written a sentence for this largely sung-through re-tread, and while there’s not a memorable line among them, they leave the floor clear for George Styles and Anthony Drewe to pump out a menagerie of style-hopping tunes.
This is Wind in the Willows as songbook-showcase. Not a single incident occurs without Styles and Drewe wrenching a song from it, not a scene-change takes place without a song to go on top of it. Some feel like vintage Willows, particularly the catchy ‘Messing About in a Boat’, feel-good ‘The Open Road’ and two anarchic songs from the stoats and weasels, ‘The Wild Wooders’ and ‘We’re Taking Over the Hall’. Others scrape the barrel – it takes a considerable act of contortion to squeeze ‘To Be A Woman’ out of the scene in which Toad dresses up in a washerwoman’s corset, and Mole’s panegyric for homecoming ‘A Place to Come Back To’ would have more impact if Fellowes’ book hadn’t snipped out the scene when old Moley leaves home in the first place.
While scarcely moving things on, in a show which stretches out perilously close to the three-hour mark when you factor in intervals and the Palladium’s appalling crowd-flow dynamics, the best songs don’t relate to the main plot at all. Willows has always been a book which rested more on tone than incident, and though elsewhere Rachel Kavanaugh’s too glossy production and Fellowes’ functional book miss this fact altogether, Styles and Drewe punctuate the story-telling with four songs to mark the passing of the seasons in their riverbank paradise. Cheery opener ‘Spring’, russetted ‘Autumn’ and best of all carol-like Christmas tune ‘The Wassailing Mice’ find some of Grahame’s magic, his love for England’s rolling year, and pin it convincingly to the stage.
If more of that sympathy for the source-material had been found in the central plot, this glitzy Willows could still have been a winner, but instead we’re left with an insipid and strangely perfunctory run-down of the main events, lacking either stage spectacle or bucolic atmosphere. The gold-standard adaptation of Grahame is Alan Bennett’s, a brilliantly witty, humane, careful but argumentative adaptation into which he folded much of his own sense of humour and his sympathies with Grahame’s view of his home country. Here there is neither humour nor insight, the huddles of animals feeling more like stage-dressing than a community, thrown around by Aletta Collins’s character-less choreography. The one exception is the hedgehogs, whose interlude ‘The Hedgehog’s Nightmare’ is surreal and evocative, and whose quilted and quil-covered parkers are the highlight of Peter McKintosh’s costume design.
Another great adaptor, A.A. Milne, found success by doubling down on Willows’ most distinctive feature, the roaring Mr. Toad, and while Fellowes isn’t a patch on Milne, this new production is made considerably more watchable by a balls-out romp of a performance by Rufus Hound. Though occasionally slipping into a Rik Mayall impression (hard to avoid if you’ve ever seen Mayall’s definitive performance in the 1995 animation) his Toad is a thunderbolt in yellow and green. It’s hard to hear him bellowing ‘I want SPEED!’ through a mist of sweat without thoughts of amphetamine sulphate running through the mind, but he electrifies every scene he bounds into, and it’s only when he’s offstage in the slammer or whatever that the sedentary pacing and performances really begin to drag things down.
Simon Lipkin makes a decent paw of it as oddly geezer-fied Rat, but Fellowes throws only a few crumbs his way, likewise Gary Wilmott’s character-less Badger and Craig Mather’s Mole. The portrayal of Mole as a likeable if simpering bookworm is one of the most widespread and annoying misreadings of the original book, and here it is again. A character who balances pettiness with loyalty, animal aggression with placidity, Grahame offers him oodles more depth than anyone but Bennett has ever got close to. Here, as in many other places, Fellowes seems to scarcely acknowledge the source novel, his adaptation could be drawn from its Wikipedia page.
The only major innovation Fellowes brings, other than some off-colour Labour-baiting jibes from the weasels (‘Property is theft!’ the villains villainously chant as elsewhere wars are waged about the housing of Grenfell survivors, ‘Squatters!’ the heroes heroically declare as Fellowes lines his well-lined pockets from the stalls), is the gender-swapping of Otter (fine) and Portley (now Portia, also fine) and the introduction of a mad plan by the weasels to kidnap the little mite, fatten her up and then actually eat her. It’s a clumsy narrative fudge, and placed against the breath-stoppingly beautiful ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter from the book, where the infant otter is found nestled beneath the fronds of a elder God of Old England, it’s hack-work, pure and simple.
The Piper is a common enough snip, though most versions have less than three hours to play with, as is Rat’s southern fantasia ‘Wayfarers All’, which is easier to let go of, were it not for the fact that it exemplifies a sort of weird squeamishness about the charming Edwardian homosociality (if not something more overt) that exists between Ratty and Mole. Here they barely share a fireside chat, let alone the deep connection and cosy cohabitation that makes their friendship such a constant joy.
Queerness and charm are probably the greatest victims, overall, of this commercial juggernaut, which, even on press night, as the vintage double-decker buses crouched to whisk the great and the good off to a grand Toad Hall reception, had the definite air of a machine careering, like one of the green one’s lavishly expensive motor cars, into a ditch, or an early grave.
The Wind in the Willows is on at the London Palladium until 9th September 2017. Click here for more details.