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December 22 2019, Reviews The David Beach Competition

Wind in the Willows

Wells Little Theatre

Wells

Saturday Matinee 22nd December 2019

As the first show of the 2020 David Beach Competition season, I had been looking forward to watching Wind in the Willows, Wells Little Theatre’s Christmastime production. The group’s seasonal offering is generally a very successful pantomime, winning regular plaudits and trophies at the SFD’s Cinderella Trophy Competition so I was particularly interested to see the value of a change from tradition. On the surface at least, WITW should be a great choice as a family show. The reputations of the creators should be enough to guarantee success: Julian Fellowes’ book (He of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park fame) and music from Drewe and Stiles (a hugely successful pair, particularly in the children-orientated show tradition, having delivered favourites like Honk and Mary Poppins). Add to the ‘mix’ the very hard-working and talented group of performers who regularly deliver some super shows to packed houses at the Little Theatre and, to borrow a phrase from pantomime ‘what could possibly go wrong?’.

This was a lovely looking show. In terms of appearance, the Creative Team (Director Kate Lynch, MD Sheila Ross, Choreographer Tina Eyres, Set Designer Chris Spray and Lighting Designer James Boston) did a great job. From the leafy green curtain to the cleverly positioned band to the scary Wild Wood and the summertime feel of being on-the-road with Ratty, Mole and Toad there was a charm and warmth radiating from the stage. The Little Theatre’s stage, as one might imagine from the name, is not enormous and the team’s decision to eschew the ‘pit’ and place the orchestra on stage (on an ‘island’ in the ‘river’!), allowing the stage to be extended forwards worked very well to give a real feeling of depth. This effect, combined with a very well-considered lighting plot, the good use of entrances and exits in the auditorium and attractive but minimal scenery gave a great sensation of space and air in the diminutive theatre. Bright cheery costume, although hardly deviating from the West End production’s ‘look’, worked very well: The principals stood out nicely and each of the supporting animals was identifiable and very well presented.

Principal performances were well delivered. Strong singing and good character acting from Rat (Nick Barlow), Mole (Tom Creswick), Badger (Gerald Eyres), Mrs Otter (Nicky Hann), Chief Weasel (Alisa Creaser) and a well-judged, not-too-OTT but very watchable Toad (Mark Wall).

Supporting roles and the Ensemble all played a substantial part in the production too. From the youngest Hedgehog to the wickedest Weasel everyone was well-rehearsed, almost word perfect, clear in delivery and full of confidence. Dance, thanks to Choreographer Tina Eyres, was nicely conceived to fit the limited space, pleasingly simple in concept but well-presented and easy on the eye. Ensemble singing was tuneful, showed some lovely harmonies and some charming solo work, particularly from the youngest performers.  It was very clear that this was a team of people who have worked very hard indeed to present the very best show they could and were enjoying presenting it.

Unfortunately, for me at least, this talented, hard-working group was let down by the three people I mentioned above: Messrs Fellowes, Drewe and Stiles, the writers. The charming Kenneth Graeme original has never been an easy prospect for conversion to the stage but this Fellowes’ version feels clunky and full of under-drawn characters relying on exposition as they arrive. Scene follows scene with little dramatic content and little narrative drive. The music is rather forgettable too, though The Open Road stood out for me, from a pretty average bunch of songs, despite spirited delivery. There was nothing much to ‘grip’ the audience, despite the valiant efforts of the inestimable Wells team who certainly did their level best to make the most of it.

All in all, this production was a tricky one to ‘judge’: Great work by the creative team, directed with good pace, acted with spirit and energy, sung with tuneful aplomb and looking like a million dollars but the book and music just were not up to snuff. I wonder if the young audience I sat amongst for the Saturday matinee would have preferred having a good boo, hiss and cheer at a rollicking panto? It’s not for me to say. There was a rousing ovation at for the show’s finale so perhaps I am just a crusty old fool……

Thanks for inviting me

Ian