Review by Sam Waite
For their family Christmas show this year, the team at Wilton’s Music Hall present a world premiere adaptation of an oft-told, much loved story. The characters children and adults alike know and love are there, but the adults in the audience needn't worry that they've seen this all before – much like the space it's being performed in, this story is intimate, heartwarming, and in equal parts nostalgic and imagination-inspiring. A lot here will be familiar, but even those moments have been given a new twist.
Adapted from Kenneth Graeme’s classic children’s book, The Wind in The Willows Wilton’s is written by playwright and children's author Piers Torday. Influenced by the venue itself, Torday opts to play the action further along the Thames than its original setting, moving the assortment of characters into London itself. This allows for a great deal of humour and commentary on current affairs, with the villainous weasels and stoats of the novel now less opportunistic squatters than corrupt capitalist forces, and the gentrification of the riverbank a major point of the plot.
A welcome change in this version of the story is that the more extraneous chapters – short stories tangentially if at-all related to the main narrative – have been worked fully into the main story. Mike and Rat stumbling upon the god Pan and the search for Otter’s lost daughter are now key elements to the plot. This is an example of how Piers Torday has changed Kenneth Graeme’s text and structure without losing any of the wonderment or nostalgia attached. While many central teal details are changed – Toad’s time behind bars is much reduced and Mole's desire to return home much more prevalent from the get/go – the themes of friendship and caring permeate.
Corey Montague Sholay (Mole) and Rosie Wyatt (Rat) make an exquisite double act. Sholay is the straight-man while finding plenty of humour in his role, while Wyatt is more broadly funny without the comedy overbearing Rat’s more intense and dramatic moments. Of the four core characters, theirs is the most palpable and believable chemistry. Their different but complimentary performances are highlighted by an early encounter with Otter (“it rhymes with hotter”) where Rat is all smiles and giggles for their sexy (their word, not mine) visitor and Mole looks on in bafflement.
Chris Nayak takes on the role of Otter, and it's a shame that the flirty, bold character we initially meet fades quickly into the background. After a memorable start where an audience member is asked to film his TikTok dance, I was sad to see Otter’s personally quickly flatten. Elsewhere the villainous Chief Weasel is taken on by Yom Chapman, and while he may not have much to do but posture and be cartoonishly menacing, he has some wonderful moments with an otter puppet to flesh out his time in stage.
The other memorable duo, Toad and Badger, have bold and distinct personas throughout. As played by Darrell Brockis, Toad is the sort of flamboyant theatre-veteran who calls everyone “darling!” and his usual fascination with motor cars has been modernised to a constant desire to play with a new gadget, be it an AI assistant or a drone. In another brilliant moment of contrast, Melody Brown’s badger is a battle-weary protestor forever whipping about consumerism and the mistreatment of other species. Again, these two are wildly different but feel genuine in their grudging, sometimes judgemental friendship.
The cast all boast strong voices, showcased in songs composed by Chris Warner. Leaning into the intimacy and music-focused nature of their venue, much of the instrumentation is provided live onstage by the cast themselves. This adds to the often diabetic nature of the songs, often presented as these characters just opting to sing in that moment and the others on stage reacting as if this is slightly shocking g but not uncommon in their lives. Warner also provided sound design, which helps create the feeling of being sat within the middle of the Wild Woods themselves. A particularly strong effect is when our heroes gather inside to hide form the rain, which sounds so realistic and slightly distant once they're inside that I briefly thought a storm must have started in the real world. Just as effective is Zoe Spurr’s lightning design, which helps to clarify the time of day and year at any given moment, as well as the shifting of locations within a single scene.
Special mention must go to designer Tom Piper, whose use of fairy lights, reed-like plants gathered around the stage and a sizeable tree as the centrepiece of the backdrop has transformed the hall beautifully to immediately immerse the audience king before the show begins. This simple and elegant set matches beautifully with the well-calibrated performances drawn out by director Elizabeth Freestone. In collaboration with movement director Emma Brunton, whose work in a climactic fight scheme is particularly inspired, Freestone has has helped her cast to create a set of likeable and consistently believable characters. Yes, even though they are animals who act like humans.
In a theatrical landscape largely packed with pantomimes and Christmas Carols, it's lovely to see another beloved story given the chance to have new life breathed into it. This adaptation, loose though it can be, should appeal to whole families with its delicate blend of nostalgia and sheer newness. If nothing else, the charming actors and gorgeous setting will bring a smile to most faces, and the combination of genuine moments of humour and strong messages about love and the connection between home and companionship are a welcome addition to the festive season.
The Wind In The Wilton’s plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until December 31st. Tickets from https: wiltons.org.uk/
Photos by Nobby Clark