Magical night from superb Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

The Wind In The Willows, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, December 17-31.
The Wind In The Willows - Photo by Manuel HarlanThe Wind In The Willows - Photo by Manuel Harlan
The Wind In The Willows - Photo by Manuel Harlan

We expect – and every year we always get – the highest possible standards from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre. But this year, there’s a definite feeling that even they have surpassed themselves. The Wind In The Willows really does offer a wonderful, magical night in the theatre – a huge credit to everyone involved. Crucially, it looks superb at every single moment, which gives the show the best possible starting point. Simon Higlett’s set design is gorgeous, and Ryan Dawson Laight’s costumes are simply wonderful. I absolutely adore those pin-cushion hedgehogs. And didn’t Elton John once take to the stage in something similar to Toad’s initial costume? The whole thing is an absolute picture without anyone having to utter a word.

But it is of course the young actors that make it soar, as ever expertly, imaginatively and sensitively directed by Dale Rooks. Rooks has a phenomenal ability for creating just the right environment for youngsters to find their voice, their talent and their confidence; but so too does she know exactly how to create a company. You really do get the feeling that the youth theatre are above all working for each other – and that, maybe most importantly of all, they love working together. Scan your eyes across the stage. Everyone is busy. Everyone is doing something. Everyone is absolutely in the moment.

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Put it all together, and it’s the most magical of confections, particularly when the script they are given is Alan Bennett’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic (with music and additional lyrics by Jeremy Sams).

Tonight’s Toad (the key roles are shared on alternate nights) was Jack Keane, and he carries it off superbly, arrogant, self-centred, reckless and irresponsible, but yes, loveable too, just as he ought to be – quite a balancing act which Keane pulls off masterfully.

Lovely too from Alfie Ayling as Badger. You can’t help waiting for that moment when Badger abandons grammar in favour of what feels right. Yep, he’s prepared to “learn” those weasels a lesson. Excellent also from Spencer Dixon as Ratty by name and a little bit by nature. A statuesque figure (Dad’s Army’s Pike irresistibly comes to mind), he is just perfect in the role. Great fun also from Edward Bromell as the put-upon, rather embittered horse Albert whingeing about the horse behaviour that’s constantly being thrust upon him. It’s a lovely performance. But special mention has to go to Milena Harrison as Mole, a fabulous, detailed, always-busy performance which is a real heart-stealer.

It’s a formidable line-up – and with the slight impression that this year’s bigger roles are bigger than usual – you can’t help wanting to go back and see the alternates in action. Can they really be this good? I bet they are.

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On top of all this, there is music, there is dancing and there is laughter. Director Dale has created a production which fills the stage with beautiful pictures and beautiful performances. I never really got The Wind In The Willows as a child; I just couldn’t fathom it. But I get it now. After several weeks of panto, panto everywhere, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre has crashed straight in with the must-see show this Christmas.