The Wind In The Willows (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School- Redgrave Theatre) ****

Wind in the Willows image of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad

Originally published on Reviews Hub

Poop! Poop! Bristol Old Vic Theatre School begins the Christmas season with a beautifully realised version of Alan Bennett’s The Wind In The Willows which will provide joy for all, young and old alike. What it lacks in the stage magic that brought the original so vividly to life at the National Theatre, it more than makes up for in its energy, enthusiasm and infectious charm.

Before Bennett’s version took to the stage in 1991, Christmas productions were stuck on a conveyor belt of seasonal Cinderellas, Aladdins and Mother Gooses. His astonishing work, adapting Kenneth Grahame’s classic 1908 tale, is a celebration of what it is to be British; with its love of home comforts and long summer afternoons, it really is the forefather to the great breadth and variety of family Christmas shows we now see. It’s a work that conveys both the pleasure of languor and the thrill of rip-roaring adventure. In typical Bennett style, there is a sense of the subversive underneath the genteel, which will go over the heads of a younger audience but will resonate with an older one. It adds extra layers to a work that is already layered in gold and is unquestionably one of the writer’s finest achievements.

Ed Viney’s constantly-in-motion production is helped along by Angela Davies’ deceptively simple but clever set of slides and walkways, but he doesn’t fully come up with answers in how to stage the big set pieces on a minimal budget and so these fall disappointingly flat. In Christmas season, we all deserve a touch of magic. He’s better at developing the relationships so that they feel lived in and true. The quartet of anthropomorphised leads are clearly delineated; Joey Akubeze is prim, pristine and rather ratty (sic) as Rat who perhaps sees something in his relationship with Alaïs Lawson’s small, endearing and earnest Mole, beyond the realm of friendship. Where other performances crackle with young energy, Danann McAleer grounds his Badger in solemn gravitas and, as a result, becomes the most watchable performer on stage. George Howard, while lacking the sheer physical heft we have come to expect of Mr Toad, brings a sense of the joie de vivre, sheer anarchy and sheer lovability at the character’s core.

Like all the school’s work, ensemble is at its heart, with many of the actors doubling and tripling up to great effect. If not all the acting feels as developed as that found in the quartet, there is still impressive character work from Maanuv Thiara’s Brummie workhorse Albert, Tom Byrne as a gyrating gypsy and Lily Donovan who puts the foxy into fox. It could do with trimming ten minutes as the younger audience members begin to twitch but this The Wind In The Willows is a seasonal delight. Poop! Poop! along and see for yourself

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