Review: Stiles and Drewe's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS at the London Palladium

One of the first shows I ever took part in was my Year 4 school musical production of The Wind in the Willows - not this version, but a different one - and I played Mr Toad. It's stuck in my mind ever since as being the moment I fell in love with the theatre for real, so this new musical production really intimidated me. But did it spoil that memory of the story for me? Not one bit.

The difference between blogger and critic reviews of this show have become infamous with critics slating the show and bloggers loving it (on the most part, in both cases). I for one am proud to stand with my fellow bloggers as I triumphantly say that I think this show is nothing short of brilliant; it's got a delightful score by Stiles and Drewe, a fun cast including the likes of Rufus Hound and Simon Lipkin, some gorgeous design in both set and costumes, and a fantastic book by Julian Fellowes which works for both children and adults alike. When describing this show to my theatre buddy Rukaya minutes after leaving the theatre, I described it as being "A really nice family show. Not a kid's show - a family show". It's not a show that plays down the narrative and humour for the sake of the younger audience it'll bring in (think shows like Aladdin for that), but it has the same kind of family-friendly nature to it that shows like Matilda has, which I enjoyed very much.

Craig Mather and Simon Lipkin as Mole and Ratty, respectively, in The Wind In The Willows

The original story of The Wind in the Willows in Kenneth Grahame's book, from what I can remember, isn't the most interesting arc of a story. The plot lacks as it kind of works like a series of short stories, simply introducing characters and pivoting around the story of Toad. Julian Fellowes' book for this musical adaptation works in a similar way, but turns the episodic nature of the tale into something slightly more interesting and gripping, so as to keep the younger people entertained. At times, the show tends to drag (the end of act one was noticeably longer than it needed to be and the children around me on this Saturday matinee were getting restless), but overall, it works well for the sake of the piece.

The new score by Stiles and Drewe is probably my favourite part about the show. While the music is almost entirely forgettable after you leave the theatre apart from a couple of songs, it doesn't mean that the music doesn't work in context. The music varies from big showstoppers to introduce specific characters, to intimate duets which establish an emotional undercurrent, to fun 'cabaret' style numbers by the supporting cast which act as comic relief (and some time for a scene and costume change to occur, I'm sure). I found the score pleasant and listened to the cast album on Spotify when it was released to remind myself of its sound. It's not as good as their other scores for shows like Half a Sixpence, but it's got that Betty Blue Eyes-quality about it; a return to their earlier works.

Neil McDermott and the company of The Wind in the Willows

The cast of this production are sublime as well. Craig Mather plays Mole - my favourite performance in the piece - with a brilliant balance of nervous fervour but passion for life. He's a character I imagine a lot of children will see themselves in and I'm glad that they will. I also thoroughly enjoyed the likes of Rufus Hound as Mr Toad (absolutely hilarious) and Simon Lipkin as Ratty (gives me "older brother" vibes, which worked very well). Neil McDermott, Denise Welch, Gary Wilmot and more were sublime, too. My only critique on the casting was the lack of diversity within it, though. I hate to bring gender and race politics into the matter, but with only three non-white cast members and only one female lead - in a supporting role no less - the white male-washing felt obvious to me. When a show is about animals in a production that is definitely re-written enough to accommodate big new characters, it feels very weird that the opportunity to diversify the casting wasn't taken up; there are many ways it could've been done, so it's a shame to see they didn't.

The design for the piece is brilliant, though. The show seriously has its own style about it which carries through from the advertising around town and on the marquee, which is always great to see. Peter McKintosh designed both the very-characterised set and the costumes superbly and I especially liked how he turned the cast into the animals. It's inventive and childish, which works perfectly.

The Wind in the Willows is definitely a summer West End family hit in my eyes. If you have children under the age of 10 and you're looking to take them to see a show this summer, I would definitely look into Willows. And with their Kids Go Free scheme running all summer long, you can't go wrong.

Rufus Hound as Mr Toad and the company of The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows runs at the London Palladium through to September 9th. You can buy tickets from SeeTickets directly right here.

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