Arriving at the London Palladium just in time for the summer holidays, new family musical The Wind in the Willows (seen on tour late last year) is a respectfully traditional treatment of the Kenneth Grahame classic with which so many are familiar. And with kings of musical theatre nostalgia Stiles & Drewe on composing duties, Rachel Kavanaugh’s production is clearly the kind of show that wants you to wistfully remember childhoods past.
Julian Fellowes’ book undulates gently rather than creating any particularly dramatic waves – Rat and Mole’s growing friendship is quietly but effectively done, Toad is characterised as a Boris Johnson-like would-be-lovable-rogue, and the biggest ripples of the first half come in the introduction of various creatures of the forest – like an Andrews Sisters-esque trio of sonorous swallows and an enormously cute family of hedgehogs.
When peril eventually threatens the bucolic calm in the form of the weasels, stoats and foxes of The Wild Wooders who have their beady eyes on Toad Hall, the sense of danger is undercut by Toad’s continued shenanigans – we’re most definitely in family-friendly territory here and all the pluses and minuses that entails. It’s good in the way that Neil McDermott’s Chief Weasel is a dynamo of enthusiastic, almost panto-villain mugging, it’s less so in the realisation that Simon Lipkin’s Rat and Craig Mather’s Mole are essentially a little bit dull.
As well as writing that doesn’t allow them much personality, they’re also not best served by a score which is a little lacking in strong character-driven songs that allow the performers to shine through. Stiles & Drewe prove much more effective in the ensemble numbers here and the highlights of the show come with the big numbers that start and end each act, particularly the openers ‘Spring’ and the deliciously hummable ‘We’re Taking Over The Hall’.
Peter McKintosh’s set design is simply but strikingly conceived, especially when Howard Harrison’s lighting comes into play. And Aletta Collins’ choreography adds a communal feel to those ensemble scenes when The Wind in the Willows shines best. There are undoubtedly more contemporary family musicals around but there’s something to be said for nostalgia too, in the type of show best enjoyed with a bag of mint humbugs and a bottle of root beer at the interval.