Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel The Wind in the Willows has been enjoyed by thousands of children all over the world and now a new stage musical version at the London Palladium is set to bring the riverbank characters to life, writes Nicky Sweetland.
The spectacular stage show received critical acclaim following its pre West End tour and with a book by Julian Fellowes and songs by the revered partnership of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, it promises to be a popular ticket with London theatregoers this summer.
The producers have also gathered an all star cast to portray the famed woodland creatures with Rufus Hound as Toad, Denise Welch as Mrs. Otter, Gary Wilmot as Badger, Simon Lipkin as Rat and former soap opera star Neil McDermott as Chief Weasel.
Neil McDermott is best known for playing Ryan Malloy in Eastenders, but is no stranger to the West End and previously appeared at the Palladium in the revival of The Sound Of Music. He also became a favourite with musical theatre fans when he played Lord Farquaad in the musical version of Shrek at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
This time, the versatile actor is taking on the role the mischievous Chief Weasel, a punk rock star villain who is loosely based on the Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten and Neil said, “We thought the Punk style was most suited to a baddie who’s causing lots of trouble.”
The Wind in the Willows tells the story of Mole (played by Craig Mather) on the first day of spring. The beloved burrowing mammal introduces us to all of his colourful friends including the outrages Mr. Toad, whose need for speed gets the group into an abundance of scrapes.
“Toad’s always looking for the fastest vehicle he can find, from boats to cars and planes and he gets them all into trouble and then ends up in jail.” Neil tells me.
Whilst the amphibious hero is in the clink, a gang takes over his beloved Toad Hall, led by McDermott’s charismatic Chief Weasel, which he describes as “mental” and explains, “When you play an animal the rules are much wider and broader. You can do things you wouldn’t do if you were playing a human, so he can be as erratic as a weasel is.”
Neil extensively studied wild weasels before forming the characterisation and said, “I thought their movements were quite schizophrenic; one minute they’re going one way and the next minute they’re going another way. They’re always on the move, so I knew I wanted to create something that was quite anarchic in many ways. He’s someone that changes his mind and moves a lot which is great for comedy.”
First published in 1908 The Wind in the Willows is known for being alternately slow moving and fast paced. The novel is notable for its mixture of mysticism, and adventure and celebrated for its fairytale like depiction of the nature of the Thames Valley.
In 1908, writer Kenneth Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England and moved back to Berkshire where he had lived as a child, and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do – as the book says, “simply messing about in boats” – and expanding the bedtime stories he had earlier told his son Alastair into a manuscript for the book.
The novel was in its 31st printing when playwright A. A. Milne adapted part of it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929.
Now, almost a century later, it has been adapted again by Julian Fellowes, who’s already scored success in the West End with his stage versions of School of Rock – in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber – and Half a Sixpence with Stiles and Drewe.
The Wind in the Willows is quintessentially British, with echoes of the Edwardian era and a simpler existence, but Neil assured me there is something for everyone and said, “It’s a fantastic new musical for all generations. It’s funny, it’s beautiful; the set and the costumes are truly amazing and it’s a lot of fun.”
The Wind in the Willows begins previews at the London Palladium on 16th June. You can find more information on the website http://www.windinthewillowsthemusical.com/booking-info