sun 26/05/2024

The Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

The Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

The Wind in the Willows, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

The accidental magic of an irresistible staging of the Kenneth Grahame classic

Love rat: Will Kemp as nautical Ratty, Clemmie Sveaas's Mole and Luke Heydon's Otter behindAll images © Johan Persson/Royal Opera House

Once upon a time... for a child there is always an attic, with a rocking-horse, a wardrobe, an old clock and granny’s huge chair. And there's always a story to be found there about being monstrously bad and naughty, and being forgiven. This is the delight of the irresistible staging of The Wind in the Willows at the Royal Opera House’s subterranean Linbury Studio Theatre.

Out of the cupboard drawer you can drag a stripey river, from the wonky rafters you can pull down green willow fronds, and inside a rolled-up old carpet there sleeps a myopic, shy Mole. Now 10 years old, the production with its familiar anthropomorphs Toad, Ratty, Mole, Badger and the pesky Weasels casts a joy that’s as atmospherically frayed as it is immediately appealing to little children. The characters aren't animals but tweedy fellows of yesteryear, with funny little props to differentiate them - a black nose and whiskers on Otter, white knitted ears on the Rabbits, a boat around the waist of salty seadog Ratty.

Cris Penfold as ToadToad has eyewateringly loud yellow checked trousers, but the punk-Elvis Weasels, in their drainpipe denims and black quiffs, have the show stolen away from them by their partners in crime, the Stoats, who are three compellingly funny puppets, mangy and grinning, manipulated dextrously by their punk puppeteers.

A live band behind scenes sends out unrelentingly chirpy teatime music by Martin Ward in the style of the First World War composer George Butterworth, while narrator Will Tuckett - also the choreographer and director of the show - delivers a child-friendly poetic narrative by Andrew Motion that has, in previous revivals, been less lovable than Tuckett here.

Cris Penfold shows unstoppable hubris as little Toad, with the perfect elastic mouth to make you sense the Toad within the boy

The show conquers because of the Quay Brothers’ inspired attic setting and Nicky Gillibrand's enchanting costuming, but it's also probably never been so well cast as in this fourth time round. You mentally invent relatives in the parts - Will Kemp, the original Ratty, now has a slightly worn and cheesy edge to his Errol Flynn glamour, like a raffish older brother, and Clemmie Sveaas's adorable performance as Mole suggests some shy, loving aunt. Cris Penfold shows unstoppable hubris as little Toad, flaunting his noisy car and his dandy blond curls like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and blessed with the perfect elastic mouth to make you sense the Toad within the boy. (Penfold pictured left, by Johan Persson)

Most scene-stealing of all is the shape-shifting Luke Heydon, swiftly slipping from bumbly Otter to slinky Chief Weasel to raunchy Gaoler’s Daughter with effortless charisma and mastery of the evil smirk. The scene between him as the Gaoler’s Daughter, wrapped in a floral pinny, with generous bosom, and the wheedling Toad, desperate to get out of jail, is hilariously done by the pair, complicit in anarchy as the cops swarm about waving their truncheons like they do in comics. And this new revival also has a topical new amusement due to advances in puppetry, involving the Toad’s trial and the bunraku expertise of Toby Olié.

Everything is lightly done with a free hand with Grahame's characters. The characters don't exactly dance as such - it's more of a Laurel and Hardy silent-movie capering. But from the group alchemy of perfect collaborators, this delightful show has the stardust of unplanned magic over it. In this case you may actually have to kill to get a ticket, as the run of 30 performances is close to sold out.

Watch the production trailer

Find @ismeneb on Twitter

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters