It’s panto time again and the part of the year when theatres anticipate taking a third of their annual income in just six weeks. Unless you know you’re onto a winner, it’s pretty nerve-wracking which is why venues have regular Dames to build the brand or, in the case of the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a classic children’s story.
Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows charts the adventures of Mole, Ratty and Badger and the egregious Mr Toad. Although artistic director Theresa Heskins has adapted the book, this year she is busy in Northampton directing the national tour of The Worst Witch, starring the wonderful Polly Lister, and so has handed on the director’s mantle to Peter Leslie Wild. Good decision.
Alicia McKenzie’s Mole starts the show, waking from hibernation and eschewing much needed spring cleaning to explore the world above ground. It’s this lack of prudence that leads Moley into all sorts of scrapes, and we love her for it. Ratty is a precise Richard Keightley, whom you absolutely believe would rather mess about in boats than do anything else, but if Mole needs to be rescued, he’s your man. And Badger, he’s a big burly creature and rather solitary in the book, but Heskins has a shock in store for aficionados. She has written a lady badger, erudite and socially engaged, with excellent organisational skills, and Emma Manton pulls her off with elan.
Toad is an upper-class buffoon*, and in 2011 at Manchester’s Library Theatre Paul Barnhill gave us Toad as Boris Johnson, which fitted perfectly. It’s a measure of the times that you probably couldn’t do that now. Here, Toad is a cross-check plus-foured Rob Witcomb, who ruthlessly charms us into liking this overgrown over-rich child who wreaks havoc across the countryside without regret. However, Heskins has redemption in store for him. I’ll come back to that.
There are seven others in the cast who play lots of other parts – I think the quick-change dressers should take a bow – and everyone sings or plays a musical instrument. Everyone is good but special mention is due to Keiran Buckeridge who is the show MD and keeps it all together beautifully while also playing Mr Fox, a role he was born to deliver. There is also a team of youngsters who play small animals and sing nicely.
If I have a quibble about the production, it’s that act one is busy visually and thematically and there’s little time for the audience to settle and enjoy the characters as we’re being dazzled by clever spectacle that will be familiar to fans of Sally Cookson’s work. Act two is a different matter. There’s room for the story to breathe and the set piece around the silent movie train sequence is a work of genius.
As for Toad’s redemption, the politics of the story are complicated. It’s really a celebration of bourgeois fortitude, generosity and determination. In the book, Toad is an upper class ass who lives in a huge house and does what he likes. Up the road, the Wild Wood is full of weasels and stoats, nasty oiks who are venal, lazy and would cut your throat for a glass of ale. While Toad is in jail atoning for his crimes, the wild wooders take over Toad Hall and start to eat and drink their way through the cellars, but Badger, Ratty and Mole, our middle class heroes, liberate the Hall and return it to Toad’s care.
Heskins is having none of this, and I suspect, in another sign of the times, we too would find it quite difficult to take. I shan’t give any more away, I’ll just say this: it’s Christmas, you’re allowed a happy ending.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Images by Andrew Billington
*The scientific name for the common toad is Bufo bufo. Isn’t that a coincidence?
The Wind in the Willows is on at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent until January 26, 2019. For more information, click here.