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The Wind and The Willows | Shakespeare North Playhouse

Once upon a time, in a woodland world full of magic, picnics, and whispering willows, there lived four small - but mighty – friends: Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Mr Toad. It is a story that many might know: The Wind in the Willows, a 1908 novel by Kenneth Grahame adapted here by Toby Hulse for Shakespeare North Playhouse. Whimsical, sweet, and joyous, this fable charms its audience with a flourish of imagination and a touch of nostalgia. But, often this production felt like it needed more of these things - more whimsy, more imagination – in order to truly live up to the novel.

As the four characters discover the darker shadows of their forest home and work to dispel them, the play’s form inadvertently works to dispel some of the magic of this gentle story. In order to become immersed amongst the family of woodland creatures and the land they inhabit, the world-building needed to focus on fantasy and wonderment. The costumes - mimicking the colours and textures of the animals the actors played - and imaginative design by Simon Kenny were reasonably successful on this score. The trap door, for example, and the charmingly homemade chandelier in badger’s house, or the bulrushes that the characters carry as torches in the second act; these elements were engaging because they are unique to this riverbank world. This success could have been amplified further, though. Perhaps there could have been a repurposing of human objects to spark recognition and imagination, objects that would be oversized to Mole and friends but small to us. A spool of thread as a stool, for example, or leaves used as curtains or blankets in the rooms the characters travel through. It is hard to see the merit in translating such a fantastical world to the stage if it fails to fully embody the magic of the novel.

There was an effective sequence in the second act in which a human interacts with a tiny toy version of Mr Toad (instead of the humanoid iteration of this character performed by Dean Boodaghians-Nolan). Here, the sense of scale makes the woodland world seem magical in contrast to the familiarity of the human figure. At the very beginning of the play, this technique could have been used as exposition in order to improve the world-building. For example, a puppet version of one of animals could escape from the entrapment of a human’s grasp, disappearing through the trap door in the middle of the stage, transporting us into the other-worldliness of this woodland haven. Something along these lines, introducing us immediately to the exciting differences between these worlds, might have been more engaging.

This would also introduce the themes of human selfishness and greed, drawn attention to later in the character of Mr Toad. At times the play was a little caught up in humour for these moral messages to properly land. There was a moment where Mr Toad was laughed at for a few minutes because he claimed to have dressed up as a washerwoman to escape captivity. It seemed excessive and unfunny, drawing too much attention away from Mr Toad’s true character arc which should have remained rooted in a journey towards self-acceptance and happiness. In this scene, the characters’ friendship seems imbalanced rather than mutually collaborative and affirming, moving away from the story’s key message.

However, this friendship is at the heart of the show throughout. The songs by Ivan Stott and musical direction by Sarah Llewellyn contributed perfectly to the sense of community with the charming, cheerful melodies and the energy of live music. The actors’ interaction with each other during the musical interludes allowed them to embody the themes of trust and friendship, giving the story pleasing moments of pause and celebration. The performers successfully sold these emotional beats, whether in a song, dance, or dramatic scene. Keziah Joseph as Ratty was especially charming, in their awkward politeness and friendly demeanour, and Boodaghians-Nolan brought a light and comedic feel to Toad. It was especially lovely to watch them work as an ensemble - whether in a musical sequence, an epic battle, or a slow-motion carriage crash – as this was when the production seemed most alive.

These moments reflect the overarching tone of this endearing play. Perhaps, with tweaks to the world-building and design, the willow’s whispers would have breathed more magic into the hearts of its audience. But, to live amongst a riverbank for a few hours, watching the seasons go by and appreciating the small beauties of the natural world, is a lovely dream captured charmingly in this production. The Wind in the Willows is delightful, magical, and brimming with joy, and is on at Shakespeare North Playhouse until 13th January. For more information and tickets, click the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Patch Dolan


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