They rolled out the red carpet for last night’s glitzy opening of The Wind In The Willows at the London Palladium.
Celebs signed autographs and posed for banks of press photographers before the show and, afterwards, were treated to a slap up party. Even Sarah Ferguson lent her almost royal prescence to the night.
But, after the guests had gushed how wonderful Julian Fellowes new adaptation was, and how jolly Stiles and Drewe’s tunes were, the balloons popped, champagne quaffed and nibbles trodden into the carpet, in the cold light of the morning after, the truth is that this quaintly old-fashioned, quintessentially English, bedtime story is rather flat as a big budget West End show.
Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, recently scored a huge hit in London and Chichester with his reworked Half A Sixpence which had music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
So it seemed logical that this dream team could continue the success with another classic.
It’s no-one’s fault but the source material that Kenneth Grahame’s charming children’s novel, about tales from the Berkshire riverbank, doesn’t dazzle in the same way as Sixpence.
For a start the story, about an irrepressible toad with a love of speed, and his neighbours living in and around Wild Wood, is rather whimsical and lacking any depth.
Yet, somehow, Fellowes manages to stretch out this thin story to more than two-and-a-half hours which is much too long for young children’s concentration.
There are no major female characters in this metaphor for Edwardian England, so no love story to hold our attention, and the whole production plays like an animated versian of The Sylvanian Families which my daughters used to play with.
The Hedgehogs, Mr, Mrs and two little ‘uns, with a faintly Brum accent, are a delight as they dare to cross a busy road; the cutesy field mice sing Christmas carols; the Otters, led by Geordie voiced Denise Welch, give a stirling syncronised swimming display, and the nefarious stoats and weasels are the bad guys of the tale.
How, I wondered, would they have regional accents from either end of the country when they all lived together in Wild Wood?
Would moles migrate from the West Country, weasels from the East End of London and an otter all the way from Newcastle to live in affluent Berks?
Rufus Hound bounds about the stage as the capricious, speed obsessed Mr Toad, delivering his trademark high energy, physical comedic and reckless repertoire that momentarily lifts a scene or two.
But most of the production concentrates on Simon Lipkin’s reluctant Ratty and Craig Mather as Mole, as the pair mess about in a boat and rescue Toad from yet another scrape.
Their bromance is quite endearing. Lipkin has great charisma and stage presence, and shines in whatever show he’s in, but there’s only so much you can take of the pair repeatedly panicking and fretting about Toad’s increasingly out-of-control behaviour.
Gary Wilmot, a mainstay of most West End musicals, pops up as the wise old badger whose self-imposed solitude ends thanks to the intervention of Mole and Rat.
The performances are good and the show is visually impressive. The musical numbers are fun and suit the old-fashioned charm of the show but none are particularly memorable.
Too twee for modern audiences? We shall see.
The Wind in the Willows runs at the London Palladium until September 9.
The Wind in the Willows
Charming, old-fashioned and quintessentially English, Julian Fellowes makes the most of Kenneth Grahame’s slight bedtime story, The Wind in The Willows