The central conceit of this charming ballet-infused production of The Wind In The Willows is that we, the audience, are in a dusty attic, gathered together for story-time. And from the moment Tony Robinson steps on stage as author Kenneth Grahame and starts to pull sheets off lost toys and forgotten furniture, it’s clear the idea will yield riches.
As the dreamy tale of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad unfolds and gathers pace, a giant loft beam transforms into an arching willow, a rocking horse and wardrobe become a caravan, while a wicker chair is upturned to make a prison cell. It feels a bit like regression therapy as you begin to relive lazy childhood Sundays, when everyday objects were full of secret magic, if only you looked at them the right way.
Things are allowed to start subtly, in muted tones and tweedy autumnal hues, with bigger effects only sneaking in towards the interval, when a troupe of carol singers arrive and demolish what’s left of the fourth wall. This sets up a rip-roaring second-half full of adventure and comedy, all set to the poetry of Andrew Motion.
The actual story is oddly conservative as the animals rally round Mr Toad, the errant aristocrat who loses his house after stealing a car, yet it still works brilliantly. Cris Penfold makes you love and root for Toad, despite the fact he is actually half-Joker, half-Jeremy Clarkson. There is something of Danny Kaye in Penfold, with legs that look like they’d keep on moving even if you chopped them off and fried them in garlic. The other dancers are less ebullient but still full of personality: dapper Ratty (Will Kemp), geeky Mole (Clemmie Sveaas) and hoary old patrician Badger (Christoper Akrill) — together they make a perfectly-balanced and winning combination.
Our favourites, however, were the villains – weasels dressed like 50’s rockers and snarling stoats who pop up everywhere (terrific puppets by Toby Olié). This is less spectacular than a lot of the attention-desperate shows out over the festive period, but it’s all the better for it.
The Wind In The Willows is on at the Duchess Theatre until 1 February 2014.
Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.