Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Polka Theatre production
Playing at Polka Theatre until 17th February 2019
For ages 5+
The last time I reviewed The Wind in the Willows, I wondered whether the tale – with its rose-tinted nostalgia (look where that’s landed us), classism, and justification of the inevitability of inequality – might fall out of fashion before long. It seems the story of Mole (Andrea Matthear-Laing), Ratty (Andrew Chevalier), Badger (Edd Muruako) and Toad (Phil Yarrow) might still have a place on our stages, but only after quite a bit of editing.
Narcissistic, delusional, self-aggrandizing – no, not Mr Trump, but Mr Toad. It’s a surprise that this peddler of fake news and ‘yuge’ exaggerator isn’t wearing a red MAGA hat. In Polka Theatre’s adaptation, the privileged amphibian is still as bumbling and thoughtless as he is in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel, but his self-destructive streak has far wider consequences – it’s to blame for the divide amongst those who live on the river bank, and those in the Wild Wood, and the cause of ‘the wind in the willows’, a threatening gale portends something terrible. His actions are also attributed deeper roots – Toad’s bad behaviour results from idolizing and emulating humans.
Toby Hulse’s script doesn’t dabble much with the animals who live in the Wild Wood, thereby avoiding classist portrayals of the weasels and stoats. Toad isn’t just an endearing buffoon, whose aristocratic status sees him escape every scrape he gets into. The parts of the book that most suggest this are cleverly excised to create a much more psychologically interesting character. What happens to Toad in the book – his trial for stealing a motor car, time in jail, escape disguised as a washer woman, and triumphant return via rail to Toad Hall – are just the boastful, fictional excuse he gives Ratty, Mole and Badger as to why he’s been away. The reality is far more boring: a human child trapped him in a jar, and another spotted him and set him free.
But though the play dares to make bold cuts to the original text, it keeps the part that is most often abridged or dropped from dramatization. For anyone who has read the book, they’ll recognize the mysterious, spiritual figure who briefly appears to Badger, Ratty and Mole in the light of a magical harvest moon as Pan from the chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. In Polka’s production, however, his identity and role is unclear and his presence in a show that is a little too long feels unnecessary.
Polka’s twist on the original Wind in the Willows tale feels relevant and fresh: it’s not about accepting your place in society – a hierarchical natural order that may have been accepted in Edwardian England but just won’t cut it now – but knowing and celebrating who you are. The animals live in an environment now threatened by climate change, Liz Cooke’s design demonstrating the way they inventively recycle the rubbish humans throw away – Toad’s caravan is a coke can, Ratty sails in a paper boat. Julian Butler’s folk-inspired score is gorgeous, the acoustic guitar and harmonies of the Sunrise song that announces each season sounding like the best of James Taylor. Yarrow is very funny as Toad, and Muruako is a comically curmudgeonly Badger, though the whole cast, including Kara Taylor Alberts and Jessica Dennis as ensemble, bring Grahame’s world vividly to life.
But it’s still the story of a privileged, self-obsessed, destructive character wreaking havoc on those around him, and yet still being treated with more patience and kindness than his dangerous behaviour deserves. The show charts the easy slide from roguish conduct to outright thuggishness, as a power-hungry Toad knocks aside animals less powerful than him. Despite what Ratty, Mole and Badger may believe, it’s difficult to reason with an animal like that, and perhaps because it all feels a little too close to home, the play’s neat, happy ending isn’t entirely convincing.
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