What a thoroughly enjoyable production! I confess I went to SOS’s spring offering of The Wind in the Willows in some trepidation as the book has never been a favourite of mine. However, I was treated to an excellent score (George Stiles), book (Julian Fellowes) and lyrics (Anthony Drew), sung and played with energy and enthusiasm by an excellent cast.
The scene opens with arches and hanging greenery, which adapts well through all the changes of the play, from on the river, to underground, to deep in the wild wood; changes subtly augmented by lighting (Martin Whitaker) as well as pieces of mobile set. Stage manager, Angie Barks, and her team are to be congratulated on the smooth, seamless and speedy transitions which maintained the pace of this fast-moving, but never hurried, show.
Dressing a cast of 34, some in multiple costumes, is no mean feat and wardrobe mistress, Sue Grove, and her team have risen magnificently to the challenge. A whole host of woodland creatures enchanted us – I particularly enjoyed the carol-singing field mice, the hard-done-by horse and the hedgehogs warning us of the perils of crossing the road. There is an old saying that you should never work with children and animals but the children as animals in this show were a delight.
In a production which boasted no weak links, there are standout performances from the four principals. Richard Peaty clearly revelled in the role of Toad, bringing a charm and childlike lack of awareness of the consequences of his own actions to a character who can easily come across as obnoxious. Here we could find some understanding of why his friends don’t just abandon him! His enthusiasm is contagious. Russell Dutton (Ratty) and Matthew Pike (Mole) did a wonderful job of singing whilst manoeuvring the boat, apparently without effort. This partnership worked well. Mole became a particularly sympathetic character as we enjoyed his awe-struck exploration of the world above ground, while Ratty’s more down-to-earth attitude and asides prevent it from becoming too saccharin. When we finally get to meet Badger (Mike Pavitt), his impressive bass voice and greater height, help to explain why all the woodland creatures defer to him.
However, this is very much an ensemble piece and the ensemble did not disappoint. The Wild Wooders, led by Chief Weasel, Peter Lavery (clearly a young talent to be watched), were enthusiastic baddies terrorising Mole and Portia (Amy Marsden, showing a talent for comedy), the young otter they kidnap to fatten up. All the ensemble pieces featured dance routines which would have graced any West End stage. Choreographer and assistant director, Susie Maycock, really put the cast through their paces and the energy and precision of the routines was impressive, with Peter Lavery being particularly so.
The clarity of the singing and the excellence of the orchestra are a massive credit to Musical Director and orchestra conductor, Nigel Finch. Despite a few minor gremlins with a recalcitrant radio mic (always a huge problem for shows which have little rehearsal time in the venue) every word was heard even when the orchestra were at full throttle. Even when dancing, the chorus made every word and note count.
Director Rachel Pike deserves to be extremely proud of this production, even more so as she has continued right up to the birth of her baby! Also very brave under the circumstances to cast husband Matthew as Mole. I hope she has plenty of other support at home for the run.
I suspect there are few tickets to be had for the final three performances as last night was nearly at capacity but, if you can get there, do grab a seat for this show. Definitely not one to be missed! Runs to Saturday 1st February, with a matinee as well as an evening performance on Saturday.