Review: The Wind In The Willows, York Theatre Royal

Richard Mark, Deborah Hewitt and Martin Barr

Richard Mark, Deborah Hewitt and Martin Barr

First published in Theatre
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LAST time, in 2010, Damian Cruden's radical overhaul of the YorkTheatre Royal stage and stalls for The Wind In The Willows gave a foretaste of the season of in-the-round shows that would follow the next year.

This time, artistic director Cruden re-configures the auditorium with banked seating up to the lip of the dress circle, making the proscenium arch stage feel closer to everyone, as will be the case once the theatre's £4.1 million redevelopment is carried out in 2015.

Such change is in the name of progress, and that is inarguably the case. Not all change, not all progress, is for the better, however, as the sentiments of Kenneth Grahame's novel Wind In The Willows affirm, especially in the eco-warrior interpretation of York playwright Mike Kenny that also laments our increasingly divided society.

The industrial revolution, the rise of motorised transport, the march of town expansion across the cornfields of England, they were the wind of change in the willows, yet nature has a way of fighting back. And so, as Kenny's play begins, Toad Hall is overgrown, in disrepair and up for auction, with Michael Lambourne's bewhiskered Chief Weasel, one of several returnees from five summers ago, in marvellously stentorian voice as the auctioneer. It really is time, by the way, to add him to the Berwick Kaler pantomime roster, as he is a supreme entertainer for children and adults alike.

Kenny then tells the story in flashback, the cast using whatever comes to hand to improvise as props and scenery – a cricket bat for an oar, a sofa for a car, for example – as Robin Simpson's doleful Mole, Jonathan Race's dandy reprise of thoroughly decent Ratty and Jacky Naylor's irascible, if wise Mrs Badger (yes, Mrs Badger) struggle to keep Martin Barrass's irrepressible Mr Toad on the straight and narrow and off the road.

This task is somewhat easier in the slower first half, where Mr Toad's mishaps plays second fiddle to the river and Wild Woodland deeds of Ratty and co. Talking of fiddles, it would be remiss not to mention the compositions of musical director Christopher Madin, whose pastoral English score on accordion, violin and woodwind evokes Ralph Vaughan Williams and the verdant folk songbook. The actor-musician contributions of Josh Sneesby's Mr Rabbit, Deborah Hewitt's Mrs Otter and Richard Mark's Mr Fox are truly animal magic.

Ah, "but what about my story?", demands Barrass's frustrated Mr Toad. Wait no longer because the second half is a Barrass comic tour de force, shedding his panto stooge straitjacket to parade his full repertoire: dressing in disguise as a washerwoman; improvising an ad-lib off a shout from the audience; echoing Basil Brush and Ken Dodd.

Amid this terrific Toad tornado, a moment of stillness for Ratty and Mole – listening to a choral interlude to represent Grahame's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – is almost painfully beautiful in its regret over rampant progress. It reminds you to take a lingering look at designers Catherine Chapman and Lydia Denno's backstage and below-stage homes for Ratty, Mole and Mrs Badger. A badger's set indeed.

The Wind In The Willows, York Theatre Royal, until August 30. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

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