With the arrival of the summer weather and the onset of garden play season, it feels distinctly appropriate for a theatrical rendition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – a love letter to pastoral England – to be tuning up in the lush seclusion of St Peter’s Master’s Garden. Helmed by Stephen Hyde and Joshua Wilce, this new stage adaptation fleshes out the story with originally conceived scenes and characters and, judging from the talent on display, looks to be on course for a genuinely enjoyable run.
Showcasing four different scenes, the press preview provided a good glimpse at the performances, staging, and general tone of the proceedings, all of which generally work to good effect. Booming, flamboyant, and nauseatingly aristocratic, Chris Connell does an impressive job of conveying the excitable pompousness of Mr Toad, the wealthy scion whose impulsive behaviour drives the narrative. He is provided an apt foil by Rosalind Isaacs, who skillfully brings a quiet levelheadedness and sense of exasperation to the role of Rat, the decidedly more sensible friend who is reluctantly swept up in Toad’s harebrained escapades. Caught squarely between these clashing personalities, James Marriott’s Mole is also a delight; appropriately demure and earnest, Marriott thoroughly captures his character’s awed naivety with both his delivery and physical bearing. Dom Wood too deserves recognition, acquitting himself marvellously in his turn as the jowl-shaking, pipe-puffing Mr Badger. Lending the character a gruff but personable manner, punctuated by explosive outbursts of excitement, Wood gives a standout comedic performance and is certainly one to be watched.
The production’s inventive use of its garden setting is also notable. with the stately Master’s lodgings employed as a stand-in for Toad Hall and a slightly more tree-lined side of the lawn used to suggest the Wild Wood. Similarly, a resourceful minimalism is evident in Hyde and Wilce’s representations of the many vehicles populating the story; trains are implied by backlit umbrellas (doubling as headlights), caravans by colourful tarps, and motorcars by wheelbarrows. Simple yet effective costume choices also strengthen the show by reinforcing key character traits: Toad’s aristocratic buffoonery, for instance, is highlighted by his tweed trappings and gaudy red trousers.
Perhaps the only real weak spot here is a wholly original scene that sees the villainous Chief Weasel (an intense, if perhaps overly gravelly, Alastair Wilder) and his band of dim-witted thugs converse with the manipulative Mr Fox (played by a suitably silver-tongued Amy Owens). Despite a healthy amount of comedy, the scene felt unfocused and slightly flat, lacking the spark and energised interplay between characters so readily apparent in the other previewed sections. Rather than boding poorly for the original content as a whole, however, I imagine that this brief stuttering is isolated and indeed rectifiable with further rehearsal.
All in all then, Hyde and Wilce’s The Wind in the Willows comes across as a lighthearted romp boasting some solid character work, inventive staging, and well-executed comedy. A true garden play for the upcoming summer, it promises to be a jovial and thoroughly enjoyable new take on a timeless classic.
The Wind in the Willows will run from 22-25 May (Wed-Sat of 5th Week) in the St Peter’s College Master’s Garden, starting at 7.30 pm each evening. Tickets are available from £4.40
PHOTO / Nicole Williams