After hearing that a musical adaption of the well- loved story of The Wind in the Willows was in the mix, I was intrigued. And to hear of the legendary cast and creatives involved, I knew it should be something special. There has been a real buzz about the unveiling of Julian Fellowes, Anthony Drewe and George Stiles' creation since it was announced but I was especially looking forward to it as it has premiered in my hometown of Plymouth at the Theatre Royal.
After waiting for months in anticipation, tonight I finally saw the show at it's world premiere. I've come straight back after the show to write about it as I'm just so excited and inspired by it.
The show has been in works since 2011 when producer Jamie Hendry first discussed the project with the talented team of Julian, George and Anthony. Tonight it finally showcased the final creation to the world and to say it was special is an understatement!
We all know and love the nostaligic story of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, following the enchanting adventures of Mole (Fra Fee), Ratty (Thomas Howes), Badger (David Birrell), Mr Toad (Rufus Hound), friends (and enemies!). As much as I have a personal attachment to the novel as I read it throughout my childhood, I did wonder how it could be adapted to a stage musical without seeming too 'childish'... however, this production brings the classic story to life with a breath of fresh air and complete contemporary feel.
|Fellowes and Stiles introducing the show on opening night|
The show opens with Fra Fee as Mole, singing the opening lines to 'Spring'- a number that has a real traditional musical theatre/ choral feel to it as the ensemble begin to assemble on stage, the brilliant orchestra strikes up and the set begins to build in the background. Its a beautiful opening number that automatically gave me goosebumps and I straight away knew that this was going to be a great show.
The music, produced by composer and lyricist duo Stiles and Drewe, is some of the best I've heard in a musical in a while. The same team who created Mary Poppins The Musical, are great at conveying classic stories through a variation of music. For The Wind in the Willows, Stiles and Drewe have created a world of music inspired by the last 150 years of British songs- ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan (As If In A Dream), Flanders and Swann (The Hedgehog's Nightmare), pop/ hip-hop style (The Amazing Mr Toad) and glam rock (Taking Over the Hall). There are musical styles suited to everyone, all generations who are sure to come and see the show. The lyrics are clever, witty, very catchy and will leave you humming all the way home. You can tell that the music is the forefront of this production and it really carries the story the whole way through, moving the plot along as well as providing toe-tappingly good entertainment.
Alongside the fantastic music, the choreography by Aletta Collins was outstanding and really pulled everything together. From the humorous hip-hop moves of Mr Toad to the more complex ensemble pieces, the choreography was truly impressive. My favourite scene of the show was 'The Wild Wooders' routine where the 'baddies' of weasels, foxes and stoats congregated in a rock 'n' roll/ bad-boy style routine with fantastic slick ensemble dance. Though it was seemingly simple, it was technically perfect and provided great visuals to a stunning track.
The costumes and set for this show were so impressive. Peter McKintosh has designed gorgeously quirky pieces to fit the contemporary feel to this classic story. The set was so varied and it seemed like there was so much of it! In every scene, there was a new interesting piece of set to admire. From the simple river bank of the willows to the grandeur of Mr Toad's Hall- the set had a fantastical aura to it that bought the magical story to life. Additionally, McKintosh's costumes were great- contemporary pieces such as suits, jumpers and jackets were redesigned to suit the woodland creatures' personas. They were embellished with ears, spikes, tails, scales and claws. I loved them so much!
Something that I did pick up on during this production, that doesn't usually capture my imagination that much, was the lighting. Howard Harrison was the lighting designer for this show and I loved his work in portraying the various situations of the story. From the dreary lighting of Toad's prison cell, to the fast and furious lighting of the race track- it was great. Despite the one hiccup on opening night... "Toad is standing in the dark..."
Although not necessarily a large cast, they smashed the show. The lead characters were taken on by Rufus Hound (Toad), David Birrell (Badger), Fra Fee (Mole), Thomas Howes (Rat), Chief Weasel (Neil McDermott) and Mrs Otter (Sophia Nomvete) who were supported by a really strong ensemble. As a team, they worked really well and even though it was their first night performing to an audience, you could feel the chemistry between them which is just what you need for a heart-warming story such as this.
Fra Fee and Thomas Howes were absolutely charming as their rodent characters and the bond between them which flourished throughout the show was completely endearing. A performance that stood out to me was Fra Fee as Mole, performing 'A Place To Come Back To' as he reflected on his home and friends. The song really tugs at your heartstrings and Fee's performance was beautiful.
Rufus Hound steals the show with his portrayal of the bolshie but loveable Mr Toad. He is the epitome of fabulous-ness and wins the hearts of the audience with his quick wit and funky musical performances (think: glitzy suits, green moustache and some thrusting dance moves). I was interested to see what Hound would be like in a musical, having only a perception of him alongside Keith Lemon on TV, but he is perfect for this role and for this show. A fantastic performance.
I'm pretty sure I could sit here and talk about this production all day (as with any show I love). But to witness the birth of this fantastic new musical creation tonight was something really special. Fellowes said that he hopes "people who come to see it will be cheered by it, and will walk out of the theatre feeling warmer than they were when they walked in" and I can tell for a fact that that is exactly what this production will do. It has left me on such a high and I'm already desperate to go back and see it. I have a feeling that this is something very special and this production will go far. Perfect for people young and old, into musical theatre or not- a show for everybody. I definitely recommend it!
I give this show an impressive ★★★★★.
The Wind in the Willows is at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until 22nd October then will be heading to Salford and Southampton. But I anticipate big things and a long future for this show so keep an eye out and follow its success!
Ellie Mae x
Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions are my own. I will add production photos as soon as possible!