THE wind of change at York Theatre Royal was set in motion by the in-the-round production of The Wind In The Willows five summers ago.
That show now has its second wind from July 31, this time with the stalls taking on the raised configuration that will become permanent when work on theatre's £4.1 million re-development begins next March.
Once more the seating will be banked to connect with the dress circle and to bring the audience closer to the stage, standing proud in its familiar proscenium arch design (with its raked floor that will be replaced by a flat one in 2015).
"What we did in 2010 was the start of what we're going to do with the building next year," says artistic director Damian Cruden, who is directing the return to the Willows. "It was partly about seeing whether the space would work in the round, partly about bringing children closer to the performances, which we did again last year with the raked seating for The Legend Of King Arthur. The work we did with those shows and the in-the-round season in 2011 was integral to our argument in support of why we wanted to change the theatre design."
Martin Barrass will return to the lead role of Mr Toad in Mike Kenny's ecologically-driven re-telling of Kenneth Grahame's book. "The theatre really did feel different in the round," he says. "It was palpable; as an actor, it felt like the audience was really there for you as they were all around you."
Martin has always looked very much at home on the proscenium arch stage too, in his many years as dame Berwick Kaler's pantomime punch-bag, but Damian makes a director's judgement by saying: "Comedy can be hard to play off that raked stage, especially to the back of the present stalls."
Martin acknowledges the existing demands. "You have to keep sharing with the audience; you have to be aware at all time of the different 'shelves' of seating," he says. "But putting in the raked seating makes the audience feel closer, and the sight lines are better too."
"It also helps with the acoustics," adds Damian.
Martin is delighted to be in Toad mode once more. "It was one of my favourite productions and it's one of my favourite books, so to go back to it this summer has been fantastic," he says.
Damian has been struck anew by Grahame's evocation of the nature of what it was to be English in Edwardian times, with the principal characters representing the class structure. "The rise of technology was about to change the pastoral idyll. It could no longer be ignored," he says. "It's a country right on the point of great change, and yet there's also a longing for it not to change; that Edwardian head-in-the-sand attitude.
"Badger is the old world and the disciplinarian too; Toad is like a lottery winner; he's not worked for his money; he's inherited it and has no sense of responsibility. Ratty represents the middle classes; keeping things in place and knowing his place. Mole is from the farm-labouring class, the serving class; the weasels are the encroaching masses that live in the city and are going to take Toad Hall for themselves. They are the new voice."
Mike Kenny's adaptation begins with Toad Hall in an overgrown state, a symbol that times have changed since the boating days of Ratty and Mole that then unfold in flashback. "There's a sense of Empire coming to an end because it's no longer sustainable," says Damian. "So there's a melancholic feeling about that loss of a way of being."
He notes how Ratty, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad are "not a natural group of friends". "But that's what England is like. You have unnatural groups of friends, where whatever one does, one must accept other chaps. It's about tolerance, not liking," he says.
The Wind In The Willows follows Bouncers, Brassed Off and The Railway Children in being revived during Damian's artistic directorship.
"Maybe we should do it more often," he says "It's that thing of giving your children or grandchildren the stories or books you grew up with, sharing them with another generation, passing them on, so that you have shared cultural points of reference, but maybe you tell the stories in a different way each time.
"Our cultural responsibility is that theatre needs to be modern and relevant but it must also tell stories that have been told through the years. You can't get much better than Hamlet or more relevant!"
The Wind In The Willows takes to the river at York Theatre Royal from July 31 to August 30. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk