You know when you go to see a production has been running for fifteen years in Sydney and thirty years in Melbourne that you are experiencing an assured piece of theatre.
The Wind in the Willows is a much loved tale of woodland creatures carrying on their daily business and having adventures by the river Thames. Collated as a book by Kenneth Grahame’s from stories he made up for his son at bedtime, it has become a classic that generation after generation rediscover. President Theodore Roosevelt personally campaigned to have it published back in 1908 and to this day the royalties of each copy of the book sold are donated to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. A.A. Milne turned it into a play in the 20’s as did Alan Bennett in the 80’s, a musical version by Julian Fellowes is set to open this year at the London Palladium and everyone from the Monty Python gang to Sir Michael Gambon has appeared in film and television adaptations.
Any why is it so popular? It has a lot of heart and charm and takes us back to bygone era when things were far more innocent and playful. This long running Australian production, that has also toured the UK, captures the spirit of the novel in terms of fun, friendship and frivolity.
Following the prams and picnic hampers we descend upon the main pond in the Royal Botanic Gardens along with many other families and couples. In true troubadour tradition Mr. Rabbit swiftly co-opts the whole audience into his family of rabbits and the summer pantomime begins. As we journey through the gardens beside Sydney harbour the story unfolds through music, dancing and lots of audience participation.
All of the performers are engaging, energetic and vocally effective, which was very impressive given the large crowd of children who gleefully chatter along, let alone the noise of the concert in the Domain happening nearby.
The costumes are a delightful nod to Edwardian England whilst hopefully providing some airflow to the cast in the modern Sydney summer heat. We attended on a blistering hot heat wave morning, and the weather, whilst oppressive, didn’t eliminate the feel of the English whimsy of the play created by the clever use of garden space and shade.
Over the fifteen years it has been running some of songs and the pop culture references have been updated; there is music for all ages from Beyonce to Bowie and beyond. A decade ago we took our nephew, then 9 and he loved it especially the “bits without adults”. This time, our infant son loved rolling around a picnic blanket, bouncing along to the music and twitching his nose with the mesmerising Mr. Rabbit. The heart of the play still captures the essence of the book: a boy’s own adventure of riverbank playmates getting up to mischief and helping each other out.
At just under two hours it felt a pinch too long for the very little ones. It would also be marvelous to see an Australian classic given the same fun family treatment in the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are many complimentary books from around the same era as The Wind in The Willows that could work in repertory, Dot and the Kangaroo was published only ten years prior and The Magic Pudding and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie only ten years later.
Take your child, or borrow a friend’s, and amble on down to the Royal Botanic Gardens to experience the perambulating delight of Rabbit, Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Weasel and Toad of Toad Hall. It is certainly worth staying up past bedtime.
Fiona Hallenan-Barker : Theatre Now