running until 3 January
After last year’s Victorian festive treat of A Christmas Carol, hopes were high for this year’s Christmas show at the Rose. While I might usually associate The Wind In The Willows with summer – picnics on the riverbank and messing about in boats – the play’s message of friendship and the importance of home creates a cosy show that will leave you with a warm feeling and is a lovely introduction to theatre for children.
The production brings together professional actors and members of the Rose Youth Theatre, which delivers acting training for actors aged 5-18. It’s an absolute pleasure to see these young actors performing with as much confidence and panache as the professionals, and they more than hold their own on the Rose’s spacious stage. We are led through the action by Pan (Callum Cronin), Penelopeia (Katie Devey) and Nomia (Sasha Narraway), whose narrations bring out the story’s poetical lilt as well as being a helpful guide for children: the story does meander and jump about at times, so this trio are a practically useful element as well as lending an earthy, Pagan sense to the show. It is, after all, a celebration of the natural world and the beauty of the English countryside, as well as a cautionary tale.
Adding to this realisation of the glory of nature are Timothy Bird’s impressive projections. As a rule, I’m a fan of traditional stagecraft over digital work, but Bird has got it right in his combination of the two. Tree branches wind across the set creating nooks and crannies, while the projections bring the river to life, shimmering across the stage. The story takes us through all four seasons and this is rendered thoughtfully throughout, with washes of light creating warmth and cold effectively. There are some gorgeous details in Peter Todd’s costumes as the cast are transformed into their animal counterparts: Doris’s long fluffy tale escaping her dress, the weasels’ ears poking through their lawyers’ wigs, and the ingenious idea of having one of the young characters playing the judge’s gavel.
As the irrepressible Toad, Jamie Baughan is a delight. His physical comedy and boisterous enthusiasm has the children in stitches, and he cleverly balances over-the-top clowning with wry asides and raised eyebrows, creating some panto-like flavours without becoming too one-dimensional. As Ratty and Mole, Emma Pallant and Gary Mitchinson are a heart-warming pair, but the scenes are repeatedly stolen by the young Milly Stephens as Kitten Rabbit – she’s adorable, but with some killer comic timing. In fact, all the young cast show off acting skills beyond their years, inhabiting their animal characters and perfectly pitching their comedy and their sweetness. Oliver Smith as Chief Weasel is a wonderful mini dictator, controlling the space with impressive authority.
The pacing of the show needs a little more development, as there are times in Act I when things become a little slow and the story’s flow feels disrupted by jumping about too much between scenes and characters. However, things really hit their stride in Act II as the plot picks up, building up to a joyous finale. Eamonn O’Dwyer’s songs are a highlight, in particular Toad’s medley of Christmas carols punctuated by his favourite catchphrase: “Deck the halls with boughs of POOP! / Angels from the realms of POOP!”. Jamie Neale’s choreography and movement also does a great job in the Wild Wood scenes, drawing out the wild side of these creatures.
The Wind In The Willows has moments that become slightly too twee for my tastes, but overall this is another lovely family show that captures the warmth and peace of Christmas, the importance of being surrounded by family and friends, and tolerance towards all. It’s surprising that this gentle, traditional tale can feel relevant in 2016, but director and adaptor Ciaran McConville reminds us that Kenneth Grahame wrote the original book in a time of turmoil, partly as a escapist fantasy and partly to educate his son Alastair. There’s many a reference to accepting those who are different to you, living peacefully side by side in turbulent times, and having the courage to stand up to others.
While it falls just shy of reaching the heights of last year’s Christmas Carol, The Wind In The Willows is a beautifully realised, intelligent production of adventure and friendship. A great option for a festival Christmas outing for all the family.
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