Touring – reviewed at Oxford Playhouse
Down on the Riverbank Club, teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck, telling the shy diffident Mole: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”
Er…blink: OK, we’re not in 1908 any more. This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by Alan Bennett or Disney. In Metta Theatre’s cheeky, exuberant hip-hop musical version, Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school, next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.
The show raves, cartwheels, windmills, head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance, only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime, and our fear for the violence alongside it. The sober grown-up among them is Clive Rowe as Badger, the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he exudes his marvellous solid, tuneful benignity in the middle of the rave.
Mole (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically: after losing a brother to violence at ten, she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma. Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on, and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter: Chris Fonseca from Def Motion.
The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft. Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter: he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison. Two frivolous rabbits whirl around, grave Owl is in a hijab, and the Chief Weasel – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.
Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting . This is Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so – pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood. So it’s part gig. But characteristically, Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original. These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…
At first it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me: I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?). But more importantly the musicl grows emotionally. In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother, and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel . In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs, it feels oddly urgent.
Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all – finds they’ve killed his only pet, Alan. This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants attempting CPR on a goldfish. There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young: in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview. Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it. In the second, he pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed. Tears to the eyes.
Of course there is a secret passage into Toad Hall, and a battle to oust the weasels. Naturally, it’s a dance-off: Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter. But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” – penal reform . Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break. But having seen this I like to think he got Community Service.
box office https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows
touring to 8 June: still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford