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Theatre Reviews

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Manchester theatre reviews

Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Adapted for the stage by Alan Bennett

Presented by Library Theatre, performed at The Lowry, directed by Chris Honer

Reviewed by Charlotte Starkey December 2011

 

Some people, who find animals endlessly fascinating, tend to be outward looking, always seem glad that they are still alive to enjoy the world, just like Mole; others, who do not have the same connection with animals, seem to believe the world should feel privileged that they are alive, just like Toad. This is a generalisation, of course; but I realised the limitation of imagination, when an English teacher whom I had admired, declared that ‘animal stories’ are ‘not sufficiently substantial’.

 

I never did grasp the meaning of that and promptly threw him into my trash bin, having just read Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm as well as having been brought up in the company of animals, wild and domesticated. After all, I had read The Wind in the Willows by the tender age of six months, or so it seems from this distance, and my love of the tale has never waned. This production is no place for the self-lover, the introvert, the angst-ridden career seeker or anyone on a mission. It is for those who find something quite mad, amusing and mysterious about creation and understand that the unpredictability of animals comes largely from their having to share a planet with a rather weird race of beings - us.


One has to imagine a world where the family motor car was not an upholstered four by four lorry, where there were no motorways, no developers or planners, no wind turbines to ruin the view; where life flowed with the rhythms of a rural idyll; where the only sound in harmony with the chatter of the river and the creatures on its banks was that of the wind in the willows. That is where I was yesterday evening, basking - on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal; or, more precisely, sitting in the Quays Theatre at The Lowry alongside the same canal. The theatre, like The Lowry in general, encased me in its warmth, glow and intimacy and I settled back to read the programme information on Squirrels, Otters, Toads, Water Rats, Badgers, Moles, Stoats and Weasels.

 

The Wind in the WillowsThe inimitable style of Alan Bennett’s script reflects the acute observational detachment and humour of much of his other writing, and the production at The Lowry keeps to the spirit of the humour and detail both of Kenneth Grahame and Alan Bennett. This is a play to which people will come with different, sometimes conflicting, expectations. It is billed as this year’s Christmas production and families will clearly see this as an inviting opportunity. It has to be said that this is a play in which much of the narrative is encased in the wit of the dialogue until Toad gets up to his antics; and in the interaction of Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger, Albert and the others through dialogue. It has, in this sense, as much appeal for the parents of children as for the children themselves.

 

For everyone in the auditorium it is important to leave the computer console, the play station, the five second attention span, and the need for a ‘buzz’ every other five minutes far behind; to be prepared for an evening of laconic, sometimes crazy, always funny meanderings through a world that connects with an idyll of England, any place on the planet in fact endowed with a dreamlike charm, deep within one’s wild imaginings. At times the audience were actively engaged with the characters and Toad, wonderfully acted by Paul Barnhill, invited a rapport which he achieved with aplomb. The Lowry for this festivity is no place for a postmodernist discourse panic attack.


The Library Theatre production brought a range of colourful costumes, an appropriate and clearly deliberate homespun feeling to the set of knocked-together staging, wonderfully shaped. I saw a boat in blue, a gaudily painted caravan that almost looked like an eighteenth century litter for a rather pompously comic aristocrat, a car that came straight out of the 1930s Crossley brochure, a barge that reminded me that barges still look the same as they ever did, a wonderful steam engine complete with smoke and a huge moon-shaped orb that framed the rear stage. It was used to give a fearsome glimpse of the ganster-type Wildwooders, a motley crew of unmentionables found in the woods and forests. Through it we saw cascading snow against a wintry blue sky; and, very evocatively, particularly just before the interval the combined cast, in silhouette against a bleak midwinter moon sky fading into dark, sang beautifully the opening verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter”. For lovers of language - and this is a play of language throughout, just as the original story has a hypnotic descriptive and narrative power – this is a powerfully beautiful, imagined moment. The animals have obviously read their Christina Rossetti, or at least learnt their hymns at Sunday School.


The Wind in the WillowsOf course, if one wishes to see the play in a different light, the elements are there. When Albert (Jason Furnival) tells the Bargewoman (Kate Feldschreiber) that he belongs to no-one, that ‘All property is theft’, we know that someone has been reading their Proudhon, which is really quite remarkable for a horse (who also reads Tennyson ‘now and again’), let alone one that brings the house down on a number of occasions. Equally when we hear the weasels describe their roles it is clear that something is going on in the text.

 

The Chief Weasel (Alun Saunders) lucidly, in many eyes, defines a politician Questioned by the Magistrate if he is a witness to the atrocities of Toad, the reply comes, ‘No, your honour. Just a weasel with the public interest at heart.’ Advocates of anything to do with Localism would get short shrift on these river banks. Then in Bennett’s text a ferret tells us that he ‘cares for justice’, followed by a stoat ‘who knows the difference between right and wrong.’ Here, momentarily, we just leave that idyllic world as the human and animal/animated orbits collide into symbolic identities. It has a touch of the Gilbert and Sullivan & Last of the Summer Wine about it.

 

The Wind in the WillowsThe play incorporates dialogue, song, choreographed dance and fight routines, engagement with the audience by reaching out towards the auditorium and a great deal of colour and invention with projections of filmed scenes for riverbank and rural roadsides. This is a mix of play, pantomime, Christmas festive fun and a wonderful story of some engaging characters. Kenneth Grahame and Alan Bennett have taken us, in this production by the Library Theatre under the director Chris Honer and his colleagues, into a world that fits easily into the stream of comedy and nonsense that goes back to Edward Lear, Alice in Wonderland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and further back into the animals and comic bestiaries of medieval Europe where the creatures around us provide endless fascination for the fun and sometimes symbolic roles they are given.

 

This is a very entertaining production, very appropriate for this season of year, bringing a touch of springtime changing into winter just as bleak midwinter arrives, with an appeal to children of all ages. It engages with the idea of home as a special place – Mole’s home, Rat’s home, Badger’s home, Toad’s home. And we see them all here in wonderful colours. It suggests that the contemporary admiration of ‘multi-tasking’, so alien to Mole’s bothered involvement even with the task of spring cleaning, is yet another diversion from the essential task of being comfortable, being at home in oneself. But that sounds so pompous. This is an engaging production of a play to be enjoyed.


 

On until 14th January 2012. Audio Described performances: 15th Dec 7pm, Touch Tour 6pm; 22nd Dec, 2.30pm Touch Tour 1.30pm.; Signed performances 17th Dec 2.30pm; 28th Dec 7pm.; Captioned Performance 20th Dec 7pm.

 

Further Details of all access performances are available on The Lowry website. This includes details of a pre-show talk on Saturday 14th January, 1.30 – 2 pm. Free to ticket holders but must be booked in advance. This is in The Lyric Theatre.

 
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