FUN MESSING ABOUT ON THE RIVER
The Wind in the Willows, The Watermill Theatre, 24 Nov - 7 Jan 2011/12
It wasn’t until after booking the tickets that I read the billing ‘something for all the family’, which I rightly took to mean: a kids show with a one-liner smuggled in half-way through to wake up all the older folk. And WITW was exactly that. My companion and I constituted 100% of the audience not from Great Bedwyn Junior School which was probably reflective of the adult to child content within the show.
But not in any way disheartened, the juvenile Disney and Muppets fan within me sat back to enjoy a fun and buoyant afternoon.
This was my first visit to The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, which is definitely somewhere of note. A petite, boutique venue with seating in a round on two levels. The wooden beams and low ceiling create a hugely atmospheric and intimate space that must surely lend itself beautifully to any number of productions.
Unfortunately, and purely from a logistical perspective, WITW was not one of these. The large props and scenery needed to make the performers rat, mole and badger sized took vast amounts of physical space - one thing the Watermill cannot claim to have. The lighting guy, Mark Dymock, did his part however, cleverly conjuring up a vast number of internal and external settings from the rafters.
Most of the musical numbers, which I read somewhere were of ‘southern swing’ influence, were clearly aimed at the adults making them somewhat jar with the rest of the show’s infantile vibe. At times the songs were also a little too ambitious for the cast as demonstrated by Howard Coggins' (Toad) stumbling rendition of a Gilbert and Sullivan style patter song.
The six-strong cast better showcased their musical abilities when they took to the stage with an impressive number of instruments for each of the show’s musical numbers. This added a much-needed dynamic to the production which helped it tick along.
Philip Buck as Ratty held the show together with a confident and loveable portrayal of a quintessentially British water rat. His superb command of the clunky river boat on the limiting stage was also something to behold. On the two occasions when a bit of ad lib was needed, the audience was given a glimpse of Buck’s true comedic potential and it would have been of great benefit to see more off-script material. I particularly liked the opening of act two when ratty, toad and squirrel, under their orchestral guise, seemed to still be enjoying a joke they’d shared in the interval.
I didn’t entirely warm to Coggins on the whole. I always feel with great roles such as Toad, that it is all too easy to just go through the motions and dine out on the part rather than performance. That’s not to say he wasn’t good, and all the children certainly seemed to like him, but perhaps there was more potential as the portly amphibian.
Naomi Sheldon as Mole successfully fulfilled the role of the central and slightly plain female lead and, although dogged earlier on by some repetitive and unimaginative humour, Steve Watts as Badger was especially good in his performance as the wise old nocturnal mammal. Jack Beale and Lauren Storer made up all the other roles and were markedly brilliant in their versatility.
With a little bit less the panto humour, which seemed to be shoe-horned in intermittently throughout the script, and some tightening of the musical numbers, WITW could better justify the true meaning of ‘something for all the family’. As it stands, I would advise going along with an under 10 or two or prepare yourself for some raised eyebrows in the foyer.