Just as the sour Mary Lennox finds her heart softened by the magic of her secret garden in the children’s book of the same name, so any hardened Londoner will be won over by the beautiful and hidden away Actor’s Church garden in the centre of a bustling metropolitan piazza. Based at St Paul’s Iris Theatre Company wowed last year with a vibrant and impressively polished promenade performance of Romeo & Juliet that showed that director Daniel Winder knew exactly what a special setting he was in. This year’s partner show, The Wind In The Willows, only goes on to further prove his understanding of this best of all gentile spaces.
Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s famous tale skates skillfully between physical comedy and witty social satire, and so pleases children and adults alike. The story of a group of loveable friends, Bennett never lets it sink into the asinine sweetness that such a show could so easily become. Indeed the constant presence of the villainous Wild Wooders, in the form of some genuinely frightening gnawing Weasels (whose dastardly plan is to depress the market value of Toad Hall in order to make it ripe for re-development – a depressingly believable reality) keep this gentle tale from being too sickly. Mole, Rat, Badger and of course the infamous Toad, may have a jolly old time of it, but danger and hardship is never too far away, although of course a happy ending prevails.
Poor old Toad does go through it though before getting his happily ever after, After being locked up for 20 years for crashing a stolen motor vehicle and being very rude to a high court judge he has to dress up as a smelly washerwoman to escape. Upon his raucous return he finds that his pride and joy has been ambushed by our snarling baddies with the horrifying intent to turn Toad Hall into a Park & Leisure Centre, but all is not lost as our gang rallies round and natural order is restored.
Winder’s cast are bright eyed and bushy tailed and movement director Elissavet Aravidou’s wonderfully detailed animal work shines through the constantly shifting, twitching, and foraging performers. You will like Mole (a sparky Laura Wickham), feel vaguely irritated but ultimately fond of Robert Lonergan’s stuffy Rat, respect Matthew Mellalieu’s confidence inspiring Badger and not be able to help but adore the extravagant Toad. For although it is told as Mole’s story it is our eccentric Toad who is Bennett’s real hero; Laurence Saywood gobbling up all of his best bits with relish. Saywood’s lordly fool is a camp version of Jonny (Rotten) Lydon doing butter adverts – it shouldn’t work but gloriously, it does.
Iris Theatre Company’s The Wind In The Willows is perfect summer fair. The whole production has a lightness of touch and infectious enthusiasm that will leave you feeling positively sunny and raring to go. Anyone for a ride in Toad’s car? Just you try and stop me.
Runs until 2nd July
Originally written for The Public Reviews