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Watermill - The Wind in the Willows

24th November 2011 to 7th January 2012.

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Toad's winter warmer

An entertaining lesson in values by the side of the Watermill's willows

The Wind in the Willows, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until January

You could take the children to a pantomime this holiday season. You could, and the hilarity of it all is certain to entertain. But you could avoid the risk of hearing endless renditions of the latest adaptation of The Twelve Days of Christmas, by heading to The Watermill for Toby Hulse's version of the Kenneth Grahame classic The Wind in the Willows.

No hissing and booing in this one, but it's engaging nonetheless. On Saturday, every child in the house was either on the edge of their seat or hanging precariously over the circle balcony at the moment of Toad's capture.

Speaking of Toad, Howard Coggins is magnificent. His pure range of emotions, swinging from conceit to fury to despair in the blink of an eye, is extraordinary.

Naomi Sheldon's interpretation of Mole is entirely lovable and Phillip Buck provides a cornerstone performance as Ratty, but the show is stolen by Jack Beale in his roles as Black Rat, Ferret and Rabbit.

Individual performances aside, what gives this play its edge is the magnificent setting and the great use it is put to.

Walking past the willow on the riverbank sets the scene, and with a little luck a slight breeze through the branches will help you start the tale before you even walk through the door.

Once inside, the intimate nature of the theatre is ideal for a children's play, where the proximity of the action pulls everyone into the dream. .

Surprising, though, how much is achieved on stage with so little. A subtle change of lighting and a single falling leaf immediately changes the season from summer to autumn, with a dancing blue light on the floor bringing the river to life.

But a good children's play, as any parent will know, has nothing if it doesn't have something for the grown-ups, and here the soft rhythmical Southern swing of the musically-talented cast easily gets you through the sometimes repetitious children's humour.

Steve Watts as Badger stands out. His muted trumpet and soulful trombone is enough to leave you gasping for more, with Lauren Storer's talent hidden, but not unheard on the keyboard.

Indeed, composer Simon Slater got the best out his cast's range of skills, with everything from a saxophone to a banjo making an appearance.

And as you leave the theatre with the rhythms dancing through your head, the warm, comforting feeling that you exposed little ones to both culture and a lesson in values will certainly last longer than the candyfloss entertainment of a bearded fellow dressed as a fairy godmother.


Review from The Daily Telegraph.

Three stars

So, Julian Fellowes is penning a musical version of The Wind in The Willows, along with those talented composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. After the lack of a box-office stampede for the duo’s last venture, Betty Blue Eyes, maybe their ship will finally come in.

Fellowes himself would make a rather good Toad. And who from Downton Abbey, let’s just suppose, could play Ratty, Mole and Badger? Trusty Anna the head housemaid, sweetly simple Miss Lavinia and the grouchy valet Mr Bates? Tricky. Thomas the reprobate footman, at least it’s safe to say, might serve handsomely as a chief Weasel.

Whoever ends up starring in the show, let’s hope that the creative team don’t take too many liberties with the 1908 original – as, alas, Toby Hulse does with his musical adaptation at the Watermill, which is in many respects the perfect theatre for the show, seeing as it’s situated by a stream in the heart of Kenneth Grahame’s native Berkshire.

Charm and invention? This pocket-sized spin – which makes impressive use of its six-strong cast’s multi-instrumental skills in rendering Simon Slater’s score – has them both, but its mistake is to give a “reading” of the book that gradually closes down its essential excitement.

Here, Howard Coggins’s appealingly over-eager, bald-pated Toad has to learn a valuable lesson – that he’s part and parcel of the animal kingdom and not a human; his failure to acknowledge his size and limitations causes personal chaos and the more general natural malaise signalled by “the wind in the willows”.

OK, so that’s a neat way of asking a modern audience to consider its relationship with the environment, but it literally diminishes the world the characters inhabit. Toad drives a toy car, lives in a “hall” made out of an old cereal packet and gets confined in a child’s jam jar. Instead of escaping from prison disguised as a washerwoman, the incident is recast as delusional – part of a Falstaffian urge to talk up his antics.

There’s fine work from Naomi Sheldon as Mole, Philip Buck as Ratty and Steve Watts as Badger – sporting customised Edwardian costumes by designer Hayley Grindle – but the show falls between various stools and is not quite grabby enough for younger or older children. The boy in front of assumed audience participation was called for at the end to help banish the nasty Ferret, but was sent back to his seat. His downcast face said it all.

A nice try but one expects slightly more from this admirable venue.


There are reviews in The Stage ("the show on the whole lacks the assurance of a production which embraces the story with wholehearted commitment"), WhatsOnStage ("[the cast] kept their young audience and the grownups spellbound throughout" (four stars)), Marlborough People ("the show to see this Christmas... a perfect Christmas treat") and the British Theatre Guide ("an enchanting Christmas entertainment... brilliant").