Wilton’s Music Hall, London – until 31 December 2022
You won’t see a prettier, more refreshing or sustainable stage this Christmas: natural colours, riverbank rushes, a bare tree (which will have green rag leaves and bright rag blossoms hauled up it as the play’s season rolls), and just a few white fairylights along the edge of this old hall of pleasure. As we sit down, lovely dawn or dusk mistiness makes it special (the lighting is particularly clever: Zoe Spurr’s design) .
Only few odd objects – a vintage lifering, a ladder, a traffic cone, a faded buoy, a bit of rubbish – artfully suggest that this sylvan setting is actually closer to Wilton’s home turf. And indeed Piers Torday has adapted the up-Thames rural setting of Kenneth Grahame’s book to be an urban take, London’s own stretch of river. And the weasels? You’ve guessed it: the Wild Wood is the City, the weasels and stoats the financiers and developers. They’ve turfed poor Mole out of his hole in Hyde Park to build a private road, and that is how the dear chap – Corey Montague Sholay, in a lovely furry black coat – gets to meet the insouciant Ms Ratty (Rosie Wyatt) and become one of the troop who are friends to one another and to the great River itself.
It’s a lovely idea, and directed with gleeful pace by Elizabeth Freestone. Chris Warner’s music is played on bass, fiddle, guitar and clarinet by the cast, sometimes picking up on Grahame’s words sometimes fresh, sometimes a bit rappy. Wyatt has a particularly lovely voice – with a nice sharp music-hall edge, very fitting for the setting. Sholay the mole is a pleasing tenor, though nothing brings the house down like Darrell Brockis’ as Toad, a baritoad, a delight, we’ll come back to that. The ducks in yellow tights and random beachwear lead duck-aerobics; the weasels snarl and shout through loudhailers; the faint wild music of the God Pan who rescues the baby otter from sewage poisoning has just the mystical shiver it needs.
The fun is in the modern message – keep the river clean, defy Weaselpower, have some sympathy for those like Mole who today search the capital in vain for somewhere to make a home. But important too the characterisation, pretty faithful to Grahame. Mole is obsessed with risk-assessments and only rises to heroism in the final battle; Ratty on his rolling raft (built of recycled junk and pallets) enjoys his life and his river, with the famous picnic being made of scavenged litter food – kebabs, fried chicken bits, Pret salads. Otter has a Tik Tok site about how he’s a hotter otter.
I wondered how in this context Torday would create the grumpy powerful Badger, but it’s perfect: Melody Brown is a gruff hippyish old campaigner, garlanded with former campaign badges to ban the bomb and save the stoat. She delivers a fine folksong in early Bob Dylan style, and explains to the junior animals that Toad’s affluent absurdity is because he an inevitable victim of late capitalism and the intellectually bankrupt profiteering elite who are destroying the world.
But Toad himself! Mr Brockis, possibly now my new comedy favourite if not pin-up, renders him as a fruity, middle-aged thespian showoff , springing onto the scene with a cry of “Ratty darling!”, in a silk dressing-gown and green pantaloons. He leaps, he dances, he brags, he poses with a nimble hilarious pomposity. When reformed by the hippie old Badger as per the book, sorrowfully confessing “I’ve been on a journey” , he reverse-ferrets beautifully into entitled arrogance. His toys are not canary-coloured carts and motorcars but a ridiculous Toadbot – an Alexa-type device that interrupts a lot – then a lit drone he flies on a rod over the front rows, an exercise bike and, of course, a lethal e-scooter. His song of Toadish triumph – nicely picking up most of the original words and rhymes – brings the house down.
Honestly, it’s one for our times and for ages, this. There’s even a puppet otter cub. Two happy hours…
Wiltons.org.uk. To 31 dec