NODA Review - The Wind in the Willows -
" performers at the very top of their game"
" performers at the very top of their game"
The first thing to mention at the start of this show report is just what a wonderful display this was from an incredibly talented group of young performers. Todmorden Hippodrome Youth Theatre succeeded in creating a marvellous musical evening which looked every bit as good as it sounded. This was a production with the rare and winning combination of having both a polished, professional air and at the same time, a warm feeling of community spirit and group effort. Although this is a very new musical, this production encapsulated the timeless, wistful feel of Kenneth Grahame’s book perfectly and one cannot imagine a crisper, more clean-limbed interpretation of the show than was displayed here. At the outset it is worth stressing that this was a beautiful theatrical display which looked and sounded first class.
This classic tale has been given a relatively new musical treatment and this was my first encounter with the piece. The production looked and sounded every bit as fresh and new as the show itself and is a real feather in the cap of the talented youth theatre at Todmorden. Opening with a musical celebration of the arrival of Spring, the whole company impressed and the audience knew it was in safe hands as it was given its first sighting of the wonderfully well appointed stage: simple - yet superbly well crafted - scenery and a stage which glowed with a beautiful lighting plot (designed by Aysa Goldthorpe, Tom Sutcliffe, Tom Howard and Ryan O’Gorman) all coming together to create a spellbinding effect. David Winslow’s team also triumphed once again with a series of well crafted pieces of scenery which created a lovely overall picture and made for swift and seamless scene changes.
As everyone knows, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ tells the tale of a fussy Mole, a rather more easy-going Rat, the gruff and paternal Badger and their problems with pesky Mr Toad. The rascally Wild Wooders add a cheeky slice of menace to proceedings and a range of other furry and feathered friends join in to rather marvellous effect too. Ellie Spooner gave a peerless display as Mole with a performance which reached out into the auditorium and beyond - and which will go down in the annals of stage history. Ellie completely inhabited the role and brought a magical performance to the Hippodrome which will live long in the memory. A perfect accent which was beautifully well rounded and with crystal clear diction, Ellie delivered a stunning characterisation which, when topped off with one superb vocal display after another in the musical numbers, was the highlight of the evening for me: a remarkable achievement. Abigayle Rogers excelled as Ratty too, providing the much needed relaxing counterbalance to Mole’s nervy flutterings! Abigayle also impressed with her characterisation and was equally impressive in the musical numbers: put together, Mole and Ratty provided a peerless combination at the heart of the show which would be hard to beat, with both performers creating a great team and the perfect guide through the evening’s adventures.
Pesky old Mr Toad was a fizzing firecracker of a character brought to life with boundless energy and charm by Callum Roberts. Toad’s misguided enthusiasms lead the gang into one scrape after another and Callum drove the narrative along at a furious pace, which was well suited to his character’s need for speed! Callum did a first class job of providing the larger than life Toad with a confident spirit of misadventure and was clearly in full control of the stage with his every appearance. Noah Bihmul-Hilton provided a very sturdy and solid presence on stage as Badger in what was, for me, the best performance I’ve seen from Noah on the Hippodrome stage thus far and together, this central quartet drove the show on quite magnificently. The teamwork evident in making each and every scene really come together was palpable: this was a young team of performers at the very top of their game.
Framing the show with the passing of the seasons, as already mentioned, we opened with the fantastic ‘Spring’ which allowed the whole ensemble to shine. Mirren Sutherland was a joy as Mrs Otter and pesky Portia was given a breezy down to earth interpretation by Evie Gray, zooming about the stage quite magnificently! Helen Clarkson’s orchestra performed superbly throughout the show, summoning up a sumptuous sound and although much of the music in the show is fairly forgettable, Helen and the orchestra polished it up so it shone superbly. With Ratty and Mole ‘Messing About in a Boat’ a wise choice - as one of the stronger musical numbers - at the beginning of the show, the tone is set for the overall feel of the production and establishes the thematic undercurrents which tie the piece together: friendship, responsibility and cooperation being chief among them.
One of the most interesting elements of the show comes with the insertion of a number of musical vignettes from a series of woodland creatures which pepper the narrative. A marvellous richness of Swallows, a prickle of Hedgehogs and a mischief of Mice provided a wonderful musical commentary on the changing seasons throughout the first Act. These unexpected treats were some of my favourite moments in the show: congratulations to all involved.
On the more villainous side of the hedgerows however, the weasels and stoats were never too far away from stirring up trouble. Led by the suitably villainous pairing of the saturnine Isobel Craven as Chief Weasel and the sneaky Cheryl Stoat played by Hannah Stobbs, the duo brought a touch of the ‘street’ to the country idyll - this very ‘urban hooligan’ approach played nicely against the pastoral calm of the more well behaved woodland folk. With the lively collection of cheeky Wild Wooders roaming the land - including some very well dressed foxes! - hooliganism was guaranteed. With pesky Toad and his antics thrown in for good measure, this was a lovingly crafted slice of nostalgia which was brought up to date very nicely.
Isabelle Craven leads the wily weasels in their dastardly plot.
Superb set pieces abounded in this production: Mr Toad’s various follies were given a technicolour treatment in beautiful surround-sound courtesy of the colourful staging, the wonderful orchestra and the vocalists involved; ‘The Open Road’ was beautifully put together - and featured Amelia Gregory as a most agreeable Horse; the first act finale was a marvel of construction and featured performances which raised a smile from the entire ensemble; both ‘The Wassailing Mice’ and ‘A Friend is Still a Friend’ were both incredibly affecting and effective pieces of musical dramaturgy; Charlotte Collins as the Gaoler’s Daughter brought off a song which was both clever and comical both at the same time and delivered a perfect little cameo role; the attack upon - and subsequent relief of - Toad Hall was superbly well done... This was a production which was as stuffed with goodies as an overfilled Christmas cracker of the highest quality. Sleek motor cars and clanking steam trains visited the stage with a real feeling for the period and at every turn, one gorgeous stage picture after another vied to outdo each other. The same care and attention had been paid to the ensemble numbers which teemed with life as with the more intimate character pieces and Martin Cook’s production team cannot be praised too highly for a production which shone with colour, humour, poignant moments and comical knockabout nonsense in equal measure: a youth production which can pull this off is certainly firing on all cylinders. So many memorable moments strung together to create an evening of true entertainment: this was certainly an evening to remember.
The central quartet of main characters brought strength and polish to a production which filtered through to every corner of the stage. True - despite a handful of beautiful moments - the music is fairly unmemorable and the show very nearly threatens to topple over into the category of ‘overlong’ but when a production as good as this shines a beneficent light onto such a classic children’s tale, a certain kind of alchemy occurs to stir the heart of even the most jaded of NODA reviewers! Many congratulations to all at the Hippodrome for your wonderful hospitality and an evening of first class entertainment. I’ve said it before many times but it stands repeating here again... I loath the idea of judging youth productions with a different, more ‘lenient’ eye than an adult one and therefore never do. Such differentiations become worthless in any case in the face of such a feast for the eyes and ears as this wonderful production of ‘Wind in the Willows’.