Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
Call it the Hamilton effect. Ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda turned the constitution sexy, hip-hop is in vogue for telling tales from the past. Who could have predicted that Kenneth Grahame’s genteel Edwardian tale about riverbanks and hot buttered toast would translate so well to Metta Theatre’s grime infused retelling? I went in sceptical; I came out converted by one of the freshest, most original pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year.
This Mole is a new starter at school, scarred by the slaying of her twin in a senseless knife crime. Victoria Boyce infuses her with the timid innocence of a newbie. Her blonde hair and home countries accent mark her out as different in this rough neighbourhood, but just like in the original she learns to acclimatise to the world and her new friends around her. As her traditional musical theatre sound begins to infuse with the rapid-fire beats of Rattie (Zara MacIntosh – excellent) we see a community as tight and as full of love as anything in the pastoral original.
Poppy Burton-Morgan’s adaptation is as whip-smart as the production she stages. Each character has been etched beautifully, contemporised while keeping the spiritual links to their original, Badger becomes an inspirational teacher, Toad decked out in green tracksuit and chain, inspired by his fraudster father serving a long stretch inside. Meanwhile, the head weasel leads a gang from another rougher school, linked to Mole in a sense of shared tragedy.
It may eschew the deliberate longueurs of the original tale, this Riverside doesn’t quieten down for a second, but it hits all the story beats you would expect, the initial tentative steps towards friendship, the crime and punishment of Toad, a prison break and a final battle with the Weasels that here becomes a thrilling dance battle for Toad Hall.
The performances are as vibrant as the tale it tells, not only in the aforementioned Boyce and MacIntosh but across the ensemble. Harry Jardine possesses as much brass as the bling he wears as Toad but also a more sensitive side that is brought out in his devotion to his goldfish. Former X-Factor contestant Sean Miley Moore brings snap and glamour to his owl while at the other end of the scale Olivier Award winner Clive Rowe brings his velvet baritone to a couple of anthemic like songs.
The casting that brings this work up to another level though is deaf dancer Chris Fonseca as Otter. Whether teaching Mole to sign or signing the lyrics with the rest of the ensemble in the big group numbers, thrillingly choreographed by Rhimes LeCointe it shows how integration can help lift artistry. In the access performance I saw, BSL interpreter Laura Golden sparkled with as much energy as any of the hard-working cast.
A couple of years back a very forgettable musical version of Wind In The Willows hit the London Palladium. This is the version that should have hit the West End. A revelation.
In The Willows plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 1 June.