Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (preview show, 12 December)
Kenneth’s Grahame’s much loved children’s classic The Wind in the Willows comes to life in this marvellous production by Stacks On Theatre at KXT Broadway, adapted for the stage by Alan Bennett. Taking us on a wonderful trip down memory lane with the characters of Mole, Badger, Rat and Toad, this play harks back to an innocent childhood when the world seemed far less complicated. Friendships, and the virtues of compassion and empathy, takes centre stage.
Director and cast member James Raggatt respects the source material, maintaining the integrity of the core characters. Although modern theatre likes to ‘ockerise’ classic literature, indulging in characterisations that don’t fit the original intention of the writer, this production eschews that temptation. What emerges is a craftsmanship full of quaintly charm that still speaks to universal themes. Our characters are anthropomorphic creatures that own houses and dwellings, can row boats and drive motorcars, and who go to bed at night with a blanket to keep them warm. They are also fond of making social calls and attending fancy parties. These human qualities are not mere endearments, but a way to create a connection between the audience and characters who are vulnerable and conflicted. Sitting on either side of a traverse stage, we become part of the English countryside, observing the characters’ every move as if we are daffodils in the wild. The production is intimate, intricate, sensitive and beautifully crafted, with performances that are tailored, polished and calibrated to just the right degree of emphasis and impact.
The performers consist of the main characters and the ensemble that comprise the ‘props’ in this show. The props ensemble are entirely wrapped in black from head to toe as a practical aesthetic to eliminate distraction, but the logical mind still sees these wrapped figures as a little disturbing, perhaps intentionally. Even so, their fashioning of everyday items such as an armchair creates a pleasing viewing experience, keeping the movement fluid and uncluttered for a scene-heavy script. Creating steam engine trains and motor cars are also dynamic moments, with fun and precise choreography.
The core animal cast including Toad (Michael Doris), Ratty (James Raggatt) Mole (Elyse Phelan) and Badger (Lachlan Stevenson) recreate the warmth and personalities in Grahame’s / Bennett’s text, with startling observation and authenticity. Toad is flamboyant, narcissistic, immature and irresponsible, living a fancy, carefree lifestyle thanks to a handsome inheritance that is being spent with wanton extravagance. His friends bail him out again and again even when he is slow to show gratitude or genuine remorse, an interesting moral compass compared to modern themes that may well point to a different direction (set boundaries / cut off toxic friends etc). The director’s note offers this insight in the show’s programme:
Our nature as persons is fundamentally complicated and imperfect.
Friendship manifests itself in our capacity to embrace and love each other, and to help each
other grow despite our imperfection. No friend is relieved of this, for no person is wholly and
without exception uncomplicated. – James Raggatt, Director
Ratty is much more subdued and at ease with a life of solitude and quiet nature, taking pleasure in rowing his boat and reciting his own poetry, a conceit not lost on his friend, Mole. Mole is gentle and timid, yet hungry for a taste of adventure, and will happily encourage Toad in his whims to pursue his latest bad-boy toys. Ratty and Badger feel obliged to protect Mole from his own naivety and curiosity, leading him by the hand through secret tunnels and dark forests where the weasels lay watching and prying for any opportunity to seize him. Badger is strong, wise, gruff yet good-natured and confident in his own authority, almost to the point of being oblivious and overbearing.
The supporting ensemble interchange as a cast of human and animal characters, playing small but significant roles in shaping the idyllic world sought by the main characters. The weasels slouch and linger in waiting for their opportunity to make a killing. A biased judge presides over Toad’s court cases for offensive behaviour, with ferrets, foxes and hens in attendance to give evidence. A sympathetic maid, train conductor and bargewoman make an appearance, carrying the narrative one exciting episode at a time. The over-worked horse, Alfred, is a curious political creature, speaking with passionate ideology for his own dignity as he is sold and re-sold from owner to owner.
The two-hour performance glides by with occasional choruses to keep the momentum going. I cried during one scene and was in desperate need of tissues. Where did my childhood go? Since when did time pass so quickly and stealthily from youth to adulthood? As the title infers, The Wind in the Willows is a breezing passage of time, hastening all creatures to stir forth and find new adventures. Stacks On eloquently articulates this love of adventure and literature, creating a theatrical work of art that reveres and gives expression to the writers’ vision.
The Wind in the Willows presented by Stacks On Theatre is playing at KXT – Kings Cross Theatre on Broadway until 23 December 2023. For tickets and showtimes go to https://www.kingsxtheatre.com/the-wind-in-the-willows
Images: Brittany Santariga