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The Wind in the Willows - Manchester Library Theatre Company at The Lowry

Published by: Caroline May on 7th Dec 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
Reviewed by Richard Howell-Jones

What does Christmas mean to you? Jingling bells, mingling smells, toffee and coffee and caramels? Crisp snow, pointy trees, goodwill and seasonal fuzziness? Redemption’s happy dawn? Or perhaps lazing down a river in a small boat well-filled with the makings of a summer afternoon’s picnic, the sun glinting off the murmuring waters? In this weather? You must be crackers!

So The Wind in the Willows is not, then, a Christmas show, despite its placing in the calendar, a quick burst of In the Beak Midwinter notwithstanding. It’s entertaining, jolly, funny in places, but doesn’t have that feelgoodwilltoallmen factor generally associated with shows held at this time of year.

But then if you thought Kenneth Graeme’s classic woodland tale included Dasher, Dancer and Rudolph in the cast, you just haven’t been paying attention. So is it a good production?

If we’re honest, the opening is not promising. Assorted actors wander not-entirely-convincingly onstage, their various gaits denoting wildlife of some description, eventually identified through dialogue delivered with all the brio one associates with Boxing Day. But after all, this isn’t a panto, it’s a play, so hearty thigh-slapping isn’t suitable; realism is what we need, of course.

So it’s encouraging when Mole appears, complaining, as they do, about spring-cleaning. Sophie Gajewicz’s character is to be our touchstone, our guide through this odd tale of calm and chaos, and she plays with consistency, intensity and innocence her whole Mole role.

Wince if you must, chuckle if you like; this is the type of humour Alan Bennett has injected into the story. And as he regards the characters as ‘relentlessly nice’, he has injected something else too.

Into the tale floats Rat, played with a hint of the late John Le Mesurier by Christopher Wright. As they leave, two of the woodland walk-ons briefly discuss the new friendship in terms that made disquiet stir sleepily in the back of my head. But out of nowhere, Otter arrives, injecting some much-needed comic energy into events, ably assisted by her nervous daughter. Having fulfilled this important function, like a kingfisher darting across a stream, they immediately leave and are never heard from again, even in the programme.

Happily, before things slow down again: enter, Toad. Paul Barnhill is a deserved favourite with the Library Theatre and here he seems to have been given his head. The result is not easy to describe: everything Toad should be, of course, larger than life, irrepressible, bumptious, enthusiastic, a powerball in a tumble-drier; but there’s something else – perhaps it’s the green wig and giant red  glasses – that made me imagine Laurence Olivier in his thirties doing an impression of Elton John in his twenties. Clearly both Barnhill and the audience had tremendous fun, especially with his ‘front of curtain’ pieces.

Which made his near-upstaging all the more remarkable; though I’m certain upstaging wasn’t intended. Albert the Horse, played with beautiful understatement by Jason Furnival, had the funniest lines in the show and got laughs on all of them, apparently without trying, sometimes without moving.

And finally, the production began to hit its stride. Alun Saunders’ Chief Weasel could have been a nastier wide-boy, but not much; Tarek Merchant’s Fox was a tad too Bambi-esque in his movement but certainly sly; and the supporting ‘Bennett team’ students realised that acting was required of them too, and demonstrated that they could do it after all. (To be fair, portraying a woodland creature without drawing criticisms of this kind is almost impossible.) And then came the darkness of the Wild Wood, where dwelt stoats, weasels and, scariest of all, Badger.

Again to be fair, much of Badger’s scariness lies with Alan Bennett. In a doubtless well-meant attempt to ginger up the story, he created a little sub-plot where Rat and Badger not-so-subtly vie for Mole’s friendship and companionship. Unfortunately, the result here is just creepy. I’m sure Robert Calvert means to be avuncular, but he came across as the kind of elderly gentleman whom everyone thinks has, or should have, signed a certain register. It isn’t helped by his repeated enthusiastic references to Mole about ‘keeping your little toes warm’, nor by the heaviness of his costume making him sweat noticeably. Rat looked nervous, and I totally agreed. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m certain my ten-year-old son would have felt a slight perplexity too.

But the show goes on and things improve. This dubious sub-plot is happily forgotten in the action that follows, as courts are fixed (one of the best scenes), cars stolen, trains hijacked, Toad capers happily across the stage in a variety of outfits, and Rene Krupinsky’s final fight for Toad Hall is all one could wish for.

Mention must be made of the set which was simple, rustic and entirely suitable, though attempts at multi-media using a cloth for projected backgrounds were irrelevant and could easily be omitted without loss. The trucks for railway engine (with engaging steam), motor car and occasional pieces of set seemed to move by magic, though Rat’s boat had to make do with his feet. There was even what appeared to be a live campfire onstage; even more remarkably, no-one got their ears, tails or costumes so much as singed!

Music was provided live by the minor woodland creatures, together with some effective, if occasionally shrill, harmonies; though why Jeremy Sams thought that the show’s happy finale ought to be in a minor key is unclear.

Sadly, the overall feeling was disappointment. Despite Barnhill’s biggest and best efforts, the production seemed too small for the story, the space and the time of year. Opportunities for gags missed, characters played too realistically, not enough joie de vivre. Not a panto; not a Christmas show; and only a fair production. It’s the season of goodwill, I know, but . . . sorry.

Chris Honer directed.

The Wind in the Willows, the Manchester Library Theatre Company,
at the Lowry theatre until 14th January.

Tickets: 0843-208 6010
www.librarytheatre.com

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