Since 1908, children around the world have been enthralled by the whimsical story and characters of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. These simple and innocent bedtime stories Grahame would create for his son have lived on across multiple generations and adaptations.
The story largely follows the innocent adventures of a good natured but skittish Mole who grows tired of spring cleaning and ventures off to meet a water rat named Ratty. Together, the two friends meet Toad of Toad Hall, a friendly but loud and impulsive creature prone to reckless behaviour and obsessions with new and exciting hobbies. Mole and Ratty also befriend the wise and considerate Badger, a friend of Toad’s late father who hopes that Toad will finally grow up one day.
In pursuing his latest obsession with motor cars, Toad finds himself in hot water with the law. Locked up in the slammer, Toad Hall becomes overrun by weasels and ferrets from the nearby Wild Wood. With Toad making his escape from prison, it’s up to him and his new friends to storm the gates of Toad Hall and drive out the intruders!
Like many big kids my age, I’ve long enjoyed The Wind in the Willows in one way or another my whole life. My personal favourite adaptation of the tale being the 1996 Terry Jones directed feature film starring multiple former Monty Python alumni. However, I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of it until now. With the Australian Shakespeare Company’s rendition of The Wind in the Willows being performed against the backdrop of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria – Melbourne Gardens.
Obviously there have been a few tweaks made to the story to make it work better in a live setting, the most interesting of which are the numerous additions to make the story much more of an interactive experience for the children of the audience as well as the adults. We were not just watching this show being performed, rather, we were put in place of little rabbits of the woods, along for the ride.
We were introduced to the show by the Head Chief Rabbit (Wolfgang Reed) and a cheeky Weasel (Paul Morris, who also acts as the show’s music director). Before long, we get to meet Mole (Cristina Wells), Ratty (Ash Garner), Badger (Kevin Hopkins) and of course the one and only Toad (Scott Jackson). There are other characters from Grahame’s classic that make an appearance as well, with the silly Otter (Luke Lennox) and his child Portly (played by a young Alyssia Abeysena).
The cast are done up in costumes and makeup which make them distinctive from one another but still human enough as to not limit their emotive range. Being able to throw their voices and be heard by the sizeable crowd is a must, and the cast do an admirable job. However, at least in the first half of the show, I found there to be many other sounds of nature competing to be heard!
The first half of the play is performed by a riverbank and we got to see both Rattie and Toad’s rowboats in action. We were blessed by impeccable weather with sunny skies, but this did lead to some moments where the cast were hard to hear over the squawking of cockatoos or the bothersome buzzing of overhead helicopters. This couldn’t be helped of course, but at least for this first act I believe some use of amplifying the cast’s voices would have gone a long way.
Australian Shakespeare Company’s the Wind in the Willows is full of songs for the kids to sing and dance along with, being very reminiscent of The Wiggles or similarly effective crowd pleasers. Throughout the performance, the characters freely mingle amongst the audience and at some points of the show, children audience members are called upon to participate and be part of the show. But the second half is where things get quite interesting.
The play moves from the riverbank to further into the woods and to the Toad Hall set. Here, we see Toad’s fancy new carriage and race car, and the show takes another creative turn. The audience are given the opportunity to split up, kids going into the Wild Wood in search of the character Portly, while the adults can stay at Toad Hall with Chief, Rabbit and Weasel.
I found this to be a great way of engaging with the children who may be feeling restless by this point. Taking them on a little adventure while the grown-ups got some more adult (although not at all rude) gags while they were away. As the adults were having a great time, you could tell from the laughter in the distance that the kids were having a blast of their own. Soon enough, we were all reunited, Toad Hall was liberated and the play was over.
The Australian Shakespeare Company’s The Wind in the Willows is a charming and endearing production which lives up to the hype. It’s a wonderful day out in the fresh air for children and adults alike, full of excitement and laughter. If you grew up with the story as I did, or even if you didn’t, this is a fantastic way to create new love for the work and to pass it on to the next generation.
The Australian Shakespeare Company’s The Wind in the Willows is currently playing at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne until the 28th of January 2024.
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Photography by Ben Fon.