I’ve never liked The Wind in the Willows. I always thought it a tedious story about boyish animals in which I have no interest. I never watched Tales From the Riverbank or those interminable Sunday afternoon short Disney live action films which anthropomorphised mountain lions and zebras; though I did quite enjoy the 1993 remake of The Incredible Journey, thanks to Michael J. Fox and Sally Fields. But that was it for me as far as animals on film and stage are concerned.
Thus it was with a heavy heart I went to watch Alex play Mole in The Wind in the Willows. My son was the only reason I considered watching it at all – stupid Alan Bennett with his stupid fake creatures pretending to be human.
I’m so glad I love my son. The show was fantastic!
The performance space was an old Woolworths, turned into an arts café – a really cool/funky/epic/whatever-the-hyperbole-is-these-days space. The furniture is unashamedly second-hand, including the bunk beds in the main seating area and old armchairs for the audience in the staging area. The tables are covered with blackboard paint and there are pots of chalks available for patrons’ use. Naturally the Hub and I spent a happy half hour scribbling like infants.
About ten minutes before curtain-up, a scruffy little creature began cleaning up, playing Connect-4 with the child (there was only one in the audience; most children clearly feel the same way about performing pretend-rodents as I do) and fussing about, getting in everyone’s way. That was our first introduction to Mole.
We were ushered into the performance space and – so civilised! – allowed to take our tea with us. I should say, the first performance space, because this was promenade theatre: the audience followed the cast around from room to room. At one point we sat on a concrete floor.
The use of space and props was clever. The river was symbolised by a variety of blue material, waved on a string by two of the cast. Toad’s prison was a stock trolley which Woolworths must have left behind when they cleared out. As the boat containing Ratty and Mole meandered along (a different trolley, pushed by a different cast member), it was passed by a boat going in the opposite direction – I know this because I noticed it was about ten inches long when it was given to me by the girl on my left and I passed it to the Hub on my right, and so on along the first row.
We moved from Ratty’s home and Toad Hall to the Wild Wood – a bare, cold room with lighting and imagination the only props – on to Badger’s sett and back to Mole’s home in the café. Mole and Ratty got into the bunk beds and fell asleep and everyone looked at each other because no one was sure if it was the interval or the end. I think some people left, believing it was the end of the show, but it was actually the interval.
The child who had been rather apprehensive of Mole at first thought it would be fun to shout ‘Boo!’ in his ear several times. If Alex doesn’t have a career in acting, he could succeed as one of those street human statues, because he never moved, not even when he heard his own mother scream as she dropped a large cup of very hot tea all over herself, the table (wiping out some creative doodles, a mean comment and a couple of rather lewd suggestions – made by other people, I swear) and the floor.
I think this was Alex’s best performance yet. He was sweet, funny and stayed in character the whole time. I know he stayed in character the whole time because I’m his mother, so of course I watched him to the exclusion of all others when he was on stage. When he wasn’t part of the dialogue he was scratching at fleas, fiddling and reacting to the other actors.
To be fair, just about the whole cast was excellent, especially Ratty, who had the best lines and made the most of them and the Judge, who was hilarious. Another was the Gaoler’s Daughter – the inspired casting of a male in that role paid off, particularly at the end, when he kissed the boys. The Head Weasel was great and had a compelling but deliberately annoying laugh.
This was a well-directed and well-acted production which made perfect use of the unusual space. But most of all, it was FUN.