Rep have wind in their sails

Meeting of minds: Nicholas Prasad (Mole), Matthew Douglas (Toad), Robert Pickavance (Badger) and Oliver J. Hembrough (Ratty). Pictures: Robert Day

The Wind in the Willows,

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

The Crescent Theatre

****

KENNETH Grahame's tales of the riverbank are brought imaginatively to life in this colourful Christmas production by The Rep.

The adventures of Toad, Ratty, Mole and Badger may be a century old but they remain just as charming for today's generation of youngsters.

This is largely down to Grahame's gift for characterisation – a skill which is carried wonderfully into this production.

At the centre we have the irrepressible Toad – whose love of motorcars leads him into serious trouble. Toad's sense of self-worth never wavers as he carries out his daring escape and heads back home. Matthew Douglas is fabulous as Toad - he plays up to the audience who can't help but love him despite his manifold faults. His escape dressed as a washer woman and his attempts to evade justice just make for great theatre.

Among his companions is the slightly gruff but kind-hearted Badger (Robert Pickavance), the ever fussy but caring Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and the naïve but loveable Mole (Nicholas Prasad).

The staging also benefits massively from being adapted by Alan Bennett. His dry wit is written all over the production with some very sharp dialogue which bring a smile to the adults in the audience.

Even the baddies, the weasels, are bad in a very funny manner. Their frequent frustrated attempts to capture the heroes of the piece are a running gag through the show and when they meet their come-uppance we discover they are actually just big softies after all.

The production I saw overran the advertised two hours and 25 minutes and the first half would certainly have benefited from shaving off a few minutes but once the adventure begins, the production keeps quite a good pace.

Directed by Gwenda Hughes and designed by Michael Holt, there is plenty to keep children's attention. The creative sets allow the story to switch between woods, prison cells and various creatures' homes without pause and ensuring space for boats, cars and trains. Plus there are a few special effects which I won't divulge for fear of ruining the surprise! To 19-01-13.

Diane Parkes

 

And down by the riverbank

IN 1905, in the days when bankers were good guys, the Secretary of the Bank of England published a childrens' story which was destined to become a classic.

Edinburgh born Kenneth Grahame's life was a drama in itself but it is for Wind in the Willows that he will always be remembered, a tale which has delighted generations of youngsters and is remembered with warm affection by legions of parents.

The charming tale of the ebullient Mr Toad of Toad Hall and his companions Ratty, Mole and Badger is brought to life in this Alan Bennett adaptation by Birmingham Rep.

Matthew Douglas (Toad), Nicholas Prasad (Mole)

Matthew Douglas gives us a delightful larger than life toad you can't help liking even when he is being a gold plated snob. Robert Pickavance is a gruff yet kindly badger while Nicholas Prasad a rather mild-mannered, agreeable Mole. Oliver J Hembrough provides a matinee idol of a Ratty, dapper and very particular in white trousers, commodore's cap and blazer looking like a refugee from some 1930's romantic comedy – black and white and soft focus.

Set against them we have the weasels, stoats and fox, the wild wood massive, led by Chief Weasel, Michael Hugo. They are the baddies but in a cartoon sort of way getting things wrong more often than not.

Star of the show though is Chris Nayak as Albert, the world's most depressed horse, who is never happier than when he is moaning, and moaning . . . and still moaning – all in a Brummie accent thick enough to repaint the Bullring.

The story is simple with Mole tiring of spring cleaning and coming to the surface for the first time to meet Ratty and be introduced to the wide world and the river. The pair meet Toad, who changes interests like other men change socks. He has gone through punts, we join him as caravans have become the greatest thing since sliced bread (what was the greatest thing before sliced bread? Anyone know?) and then comes cars -  which Toad writes off on an almost daily basis. They are his downfall which see him jailed followed by a daring escape and a battle with the weasels, stoats etc.

As seems to be the norm these days, half the cast also had to provide the orchestra with keyboard, bass and tenor sax and even a saw among the instruments.

The design, by Michael Holt, is simple but effective, making good use of the Crescent's revolving stage and providing attractive costumes for the anthropomorphic characters while Gewenda Hughes direction keeps things moving along at a fair old pace – let that drop and little ones will soon let you know!

It is perhaps not an ideal show for the youngest tots – too many words and not enough silliness – but once a child appreciates stories they will appreciate this, along with mums, dads, grandparents, great grandparents . . . To 19-01-13.

Roger Clarke

And from the other bank . . .

****

THIS is the Rep's final Christmas production outside their normal home during the major redevelopment work, and they cross the Brindley Place canal to the Crescent for the riverbank tale of boastful Toad and his level-headed friends Ratty, Mole and Badger.

Kenneth Grahame's heartwarming story, adapted for the stage by Alan Bennett, is beautifully told with the help of some pleasant music and lyrics by Jeremy Sams.

The characters are perfectly cast, with Matthew Douglas a delight as the super-rich Toad who, to the exasperation of his pals, hops from one fad to another with bewildering speed and brief enthusiasm.

The revolving section of the stage proves ideal for that as a colourful caravan, motorocar, canal barge, steam train and rowing boat turn up to impress adults as well as children in the audience.

But it's perhaps the gipsy caravan that has the biggest impact....pulled by Albert the doleful, clog-dancing horse with a Brummie accent, superbly played by Chris Nayak. He's anything but happy with his lot between the shafts, and his facial expressions speak volumes.

Oliver J. Hembrough impresses as Ratty, in smart naval uniform, who befriends the gentle Mole (Nicholas Prasad) and the pair team up with Badger (Robert Pickavance) in an effort to get the tearaway Toad to mend his ways, particularly after he escapes from prison dressed as a washerwoman.

Always close to the action are the menacing weasels led by their crafty chief (Michael Hugo) who eventually illegally occupy Toad Hall until Badger leads our heroes on a raid which ends in the final battle for control, sword fights and all.

Several members of the cast play musical instruments in the play directed by Gwenda Hughes, with Conrad Nelson's musical direction.

The riverbank raids continue until January 19.

Paul Marston 

 

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