Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
Appearing at last weekend’s benefit concert for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe introduced themselves as: “the chaps with two musicals in the West End at the moment – and it’s the only time in our lives when we’ll be able to say that.” And it’s true that it’s exceptionally rare for any writer whose name contains neither ‘Lloyd’ nor ‘Webber’ to have multiple shows running simultaneously.
For Stiles and Drewe, the overlap between Half a Sixpence and The Wind in the Willows showcases that their collaboration works best when infused with rich seams of nostalgia.
Kenneth Grahame’s children’s novel harks back to a more innocent age, of lazy summers spent messing around in boats, but with the disruption of the motor car to shatter the idyll.
As with the source material, the story revolves around Mole (Craig Mather) and his friend Rat (Simon Lipkin), whose leisurely days are disrupted by the hyperactive, speed-obsessed Mister Toad, an amphibian millionaire whose fixation with motor cars causes him problems.
A more modern take might have contrasted Toad’s extravagant lifestyle with that of a certain property-developing president, or his love of motors with that of a punchy TV presenter.
Rest assured, there is no such allegory here: this is pure fantasy and whimsy, Peter McKintosh’s set designs suggesting book illustrations come to life.
Costumes help transform the ensemble into various animals, the most effective of which are a family of hedgehogs – but for the characters near the top of the bill, the non-human characteristics are played down.
Mather and Lipkin, an engaging pair of friends that never descend into a double act, have the merest suggestion of their mammalian characters, while Toad (Rufus Hound, ably understudied by Chris Aukett on Monday’s press performance) is a portly gentleman, with a green wig and moustache being the only hints to his amphibian form.
The ultimate in the disparity between animal and character is, perhaps, Neil McDermott’s Chief Weasel and his entourage of sundry Mustelidae, although their presentation as a gang of zoot-suited gangsters suits Aletta Collins’ exuberant choreography.
Indeed, as the show’s main villains, the weasels feel particularly underpowered. The residents of the Wild Wood, who take over Toad Hall when its owner is thrown in prison for stealing a car, never quite have the sense of threat and dread that Grahame’s book inspires.
And that is down in no small part to Julian Fellowes’ book, a curious mix of staid dialogue and lines that, while infused with as much verve as the cast can muster, contains far less humour than the writer seems to believe.
And while Grahame’s source material is, like many a children’s book of the age, less involved with character and emotion than it is with careering from one set piece to another, there seems little excuse for replicating such flaws in a 21st century piece.
What saves the whole show are Stiles and Drewe’s songs. Fans of their earlier works for children, from the Olivier-winning Honk! to Just So and Peter Pan will find a definite through line to their work here.
Curiously, their strongest pieces are those that have the least to do with the driving narrative. A song about hedgehogs trying to cross a road could be excised and the main plot would remain completely intact – but the show would lose its best number.
Of the songs that actually drive narrative, ‘A Friend is Still a Friend’ showcases Drewe’s lyric writing at its most romantic, while George Stiles continues to craft melodies that evoke sense memories of hot chocolate by the fire or Pimm’s on the lawn, depending on the time of year.
In many respects, The Wind in the Willows feels like the sort of Christmas show that many theatres put on instead of the other Yuletide tradition of the panto.
The Palladium has the latter form covered, too: but this production, even with its faults, is a far better introduction to young audiences of the magic of the stage than any saucy, bawdy pantomime.
And while one may wish that the book of this play were tighter, one also senses that any child for whom this is all new will retain memories of an explosive, colour-filled fantasy that will fuel their imaginations for times to come.