By any standards, launching a big-budget musical is a huge risk. Nor do you make it any easier for yourself by basing said musical on a much-loved property (mess with cherished notions or characters and you can come a cropper). So the world premiere at The Lowry in Salford of a brand-new version of The Wind in the Willows, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale of the adventures of Ratty, Badger, Mole and their irrepressible pal Toad, has its work cut out.
The show does, though, boast a top-notch behind-the-scenes team, with a book by Oscar-winning screenwriter and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and music and lyrics from Olivier Award-winning composer and lyricist team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. That particular trio have worked together before, with conspicuous success, on Cameron Mackintosh’s version of Mary Poppins.
Fra Fee is starring as Mole, Thomas Howes (of Downton fame) as Rat and Neil McDermott is Chief Weasel. But, inevitably, it’s the casting of the exuberant Toad that is key. That lucky fellow is comedian, actor and presenter Rufus Hound who, thankfully, sounds genuinely upbeat about the prospects for the show when I interrupt him late on in an unsurprisingly frenetic rehearsal schedule.
Even so, he readily agrees that, quite apart from the not-at-all-small matter of getting performances, songs and costumes right, it’s vital not to “muck up” material as well-loved as The Wind in the Willows.
Hound says: “It’s not that it’s an established property or this, that and the other but that people actually feel stuff about it. I’ve been involved in a few projects that are based on things that have pre-existed and meant a lot to people, but telling the world that you’re playing Toad has people absolutely screaming stuff like ‘I love that book’, and ‘ooh, my mum and dad bought me that book and my nana read it to me’.
“So, it’s a special story that lives in peoples’ hearts and souls and you can’t fuck about with that too much. Inevitably, that does give you pause, but on the other hand I feel kind of empowered to give it a go because I love it myself, so I’m of their gang, if you know what I mean.
“I grew up listening to Kenneth Williams reading Wind In The Willows on story tapes to help me to bed for about three years of my life. So I’ve heard this story myself about a thousand times and I do feel for all the people who love it, and for whom it really means something. It’s not like when you hear an American actor is going to play Nicholas Nickleby or something like that and you think ‘oh, you haven’t grown up in the culture to really realise why it’s as special to people as it is’. I grew up loving Toad, and, arguably, became him.”
He adds: “I was learning One Man, Two Guvnors when one of the other actors, a man called Pete Caulfield who played Alfie in that show, said to me ‘if you ever get the chance to play Toad, you have got to do it’. I thought that was a weird thing to say and because it was so weird it always stuck in my mind.
“Then years later when someone asked me to play Toad, although I don’t believe in fate or signs or anything like that, I did think ‘well Pete has pretty good taste’ and there was a bit of a harbinger from the past. There were good vibes around it but that is probably as far as I’d want to go in claiming any kind of spooky-ooky, though. I’m happy to say that in rehearsals so far Toad feels like one of those characters that’s quite an immediate suit of clothes to put on. It’s not something where I’m like ‘I just don’t get this guy’. I totally get where he’s coming from.”
Outside of his theatre and TV work, and somewhat at odds with Toad’s world view, Hound is a passionate supporter of the Peoples’ Assembly and vehemently anti-austerity.
“Once you see the horror and the misery of the effect that the cuts are having on the disabled, on women, on single-parent families, low-income families, and once you realise the lies that are being told to make the rich richer at the expense of libraries, at the expense of hospitals, at the expense of the ongoing realities of the NHS, then you simply have no choice other than to make noise about pushing for things to be better.
“The vast majority of people in this country want free healthcare, they want the best schools available, they don’t want to be going to war with countries for the sake of oil companies. Once you realise that pressure groups and lobbyists are deciding where our money goes, and that it’s not being used for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens, then you really do have no choice other than to stand up and be counted. It’s not being all bleeding heart liberal to acknowledge that if we don’t work together on some things, then we are not going to survive as a species.”
On a personal and professional level, Hound says that he’d rather “earn less money from being in the theatre with something people might think is really wonderful than earning a lot more in television in something that I just don’t believe in at all”.
He reflects: “I loved doing One Man, Two Guvnors, it was fantastic. But one thing I learned was, that when people talk to you, they were never going to say how great you might have been without referencing James Corden because he did such great work on that show. I think the real joy with being a theatre actor, which is something I’ve wanted to be since I was two really, comes in being the creator of new work. So since then I’ve tried to be the originator, at least in the UK, of all the stuff that I’ve done. That said, I did do The Wars Of The Roses at Kingston and I think one or two people may have played those Shakespearian roles before me.”
Nevertheless, Hound is realistic about the plethora of challenges involved in staging The Wind in the Willows.
“The point about doing a big musical version is that the numbers have got to be good and putting that stuff together just takes a long time. We’re refining and honing all the time and, obviously, you ask the questions. But we now have very, very high hopes indeed about how good it’s going to be. I’m really beginning to think that this could be one of the greatest bits of British family theatre that’s ever been made. We have every expectation that this is going to be utterly phenomenal and we are working towards making it so.”
Main image: Rufus Hound in The Wind in the Willows