THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS ***

The Palladium’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic is a lavish affair that unrepentantly wallows in Edwardian nostalgia, and offers a pleasant and gentle ramble through the Willows rather than an emotionally engaging one.

‘The Wind In The Willows’ follows the misadventures of the bumptious Mr Toad whose insatiable obsession with the new speedy machines of the day leads him into repeated scrapes with the law. His friends Ratty, Mole and Badger despair of him, but only they can save Toad Hall when it is invaded by the nefarious Chief Weasel and his gang of menacing Wild Wooders.

This new stage adaptation of ‘The Wind In The Willows’ has been written by ‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes. In this latest interpretation the exclusive male chumminess of the animal bachelor pals has been appeased by including two newly created female characters, Mrs Otter and her mischievous daughter Portia. There have been many adaptations of Kenneth Grahame’s evergreen classic. Most notably Alan Bennett brought his own distinctive style to the 1990 National Theatre version. However, Fellowes’ prosaic script feels like it has been written for the stage out of professional duty rather than with personal passion. Apart from a nod to the notion that ‘Property is theft’ and that Mr Toad is a capitalist landowner, it generally lacks any original vision and feels very safe.

The musical numbers are by composer and lyricist duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who are best known for writing the new songs for the stage updates of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Half a Sixpence.’ Stiles and Drewe’s music covers a whole variety of musical genres, and although this perhaps is not their best score, there are a few palatable numbers. ‘A Place To Come Back To,’ and ‘A Friend Is Still A Friend,’ tug at the heartstrings, while ‘The Hedgehog’s Nightmare’ about the perils of crossing the road, is hilarious.

A green-haired, boggle-eyed Rufus Hound wonderfully over-plays the madcap Mr Toad, while Gary Wilmot brings gravitas as the disciplined Badger. Craig Mather’s unassuming Mole perfectly compliments Simon Lipkin’s pragmatic and charming Rat, while Neil McDermott steals the show as the slippery grandstander Chief Weasel.

Peter McKintosh’s set’s are picturesque, and if one of the themes of this show is the Edwardian discovery and consequent addiction with speed, his designs perfectly capture Toad’s passion with open-topped sports cars and a life-size steam train.

Review by Oliver Valentine

‘The Wind In The Willows’ is playing until Sept 9th 2017. Palladium Theatre, 8 Argyll St, Soho, London W1F 7TE. Box Office: 0844 412 4655. www.reallyusefultheatres.co.uk

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