The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows
By Kenneth Grahame. Glenn Elston / Australian Shakespeare Company. The Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. January 4 – 27, 2013.

“That was fun!” A bit understated, but still not a bad review from a six year old, though, for his agehe is a fairly seasoned theatre-goer. The main thing is that he knows the story backwards and was not disappointed about anything being omitted. To be able to include all the main events, even losing little Portly Otter, means that this adaptation doesn’t disappoint kids – or parents, or grandparents – who know the characters and their little idiosyncrasies so well.

Mole (played by Madeleine Jones), and fresh from spring cleaning, is just as shy and hesitant, excitable and impressionable as Kenneth Grahame describes. Jono Freeman as Ratty is enthusiastic, lovable, his joie de vie made more beguiling by his songs and his physicality. Badger (Warwick Allsopp), be-whiskered and leaning on his walking stick, has just the right amount of wisdom and bluster. Nicholas Brown’s Toad, as must be, is larger than life, boastful, egocentric, and totally the Mr Toad that kids have loved for his errant ways and irrepressibility. Douglas Hansell, who also doubles as the policemen and the drunken judge, is a wonderful Otter, complete with wet suit and swimming cap, and plays a very dutiful father to his cheeky little offspring Portly, who really wins the hearts of the audience.

However, it is Owen Little and John Anthony who deserve real pantomime-style bouquets. As the Head Chief Rabbit, Warren, and the Weasel, it is they who kick off the show and, with music, songs, little dance routines, a bit of slapstick and puns and corny jokes, provide the continuity that is essential to sustain the interest of relatively large audiences, ranging from preschoolers to grandparents. Add to this a scorching Sydney day,  a picnic style setting  where the audience has to pick up rugs, backpacks, hats and sunscreen to move between venues, and one realises the strength and talent of these two performers. Their characters are strong and so charismatic that the kids listen to whatever they say and follow wherever they go!

The Botanic Gardens is an ideal setting. Rabbit and Weasel emerge from behind trees. Mole toddles across the grass, broom in hand. Badger lies on a garden bench dozing under his newspaper. Ratty rows out across the pond and Otter appears at its edge, seeming to emerge from its depth. Further into the gardens, Toad Hall is established at the bottom of a hill, which forms a natural rake for the audience! Children can sit closer to the action here and really enjoy being at the edge of the action for the battle with the weasels and stouts. A hose and water balloons are a welcome diversion in the summer heat.

Director Marian Bragge has achieved the fine mix of making the production fast and funny, without losing any of the beauty of the dialogue, some of which is lifted straight from the text. She has assembled a cast whose voice work is clear and precise, in just the accents we’ve always imagined the animals to speak, and whose enunciation is so exact that none of the funny lyrics of the songs are missed. Bragge has obviously worked hard with the cast to establish characters who are so believable and charming and who work so effectively together.

The costumes and make up add to the colour and fun of the characters. Weasel’s bright orange, Rabbit’s white kilt and pom poms, Badger’s dressing gown, Mole’s under-ground brown, Ratty’s grey waistcoat and Toad’s luminous green quickly establish their identity and personality. Performing in such costumes with such intricate make up and so much physicality in full sun for the entire performance can’t be easy, yet they never flag and the pace is constant.

This summer’s production of The Wind in the Willows is upbeat and funky while still capturing the charm and whimsicality of Grahame’s much loved characters. It works for those who know the story well – and provides a wonderful introduction for those who are meeting the characters for the first time.

Carol Wimmer

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