The Wind In The Willows at Chichester Festival Theatre: REVIEW How a huge, young cast makes success seem like a breeze
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In 1908, two gigantic children’s literary characters were born whose personal failings were as great as their ability to amuse and ultimately win the love of their readers. One was author Frank Richard’s creation Billy Bunter of Bunter Court, the idle and untruthful public schoolboy living in perpetual expectation of a postal order. The other, of course, was the equally larger than life Toad of Toad Hall.
Toadie is wealthy, boastful, reckless, and addicted to any vehicle that can be driven at speed. It is no surprise that this colourful combination lands him in prison and he ultimately depends on the support of his friends Moley, Ratty, and Mr Badger for salvation.
The immediate obstacle for any youth theatre in attempting to stage an interpretation of this almost lyrically written Grahame classic, is to find a young actor who can fill Mr Toad’s boots.
Well let me tell you, that Jack Keane does so with such verve, such aplomb, such charismatic manic charm and fluency that he dominates the stage as the rising star of an actor that he very clearly is. His performance is a triumph.
That is, of course, to take nothing away from the sparkling and brilliant team around him.
Imagine a young Jacob Rees-Mogg, minus the politics, and that will give you some indication of the very precise and polished delivery by Spencer Dixon of the rather well heeled Ratty. It is a perfectly constructed interpretation of one of the river bank’s favourite characters – who is, of course, a water vole and not a common rat.
Milena Harrison proffers all of Mole’s gentle charm while Alfie Ayling brings an august authority becoming of Badger. There is a lovely performance of Albert the long-suffering horse by Edward Bromell.
This is a big production – you would expect nothing less from the youth theatre. The cast list runs to dozens and dozens of names. And, of course, some key roles have alternating actors. My failure to mention the other cast members playing the lead roles is no reflection on them – I simply have not yet seen them in performance to enable me to form a view.
Simon Higlett’s name is synonymous with the stunning set designs at these shows and as ever he surpasses himself as do the team transforming the cast with appropriate garb. The costume designer is the brilliant Ryan Dawson Laight.
The set adds a dimension rarely imagined by fans of the original mix of stories that form The Wind In The Willows. So Toad Hall is no grand manor house but a rather pretty discarded tea pot. Ratty’s boat is an empty sardine tin, the hamper an empty box of Swan Vesta matches. As for Toad’s caravan … well that is a carton that once contained a popular brand of milkshake powder. His beloved sports car is a reformed plastic bottle discarded by trippers.
But the fundamentals of the book endure – the warmth, the humour, the camaraderie, the joy of the riverbank and the reassuring sounds of the wind in the willows.
In July, the youth theatre held a smash-hit fundraising concert and reminded us of all the talent it has produced over many years. Long-standing and utterly adored director Dale Rooks was deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.
The Wind In the Willows gives further proof – were any such needed – that not only is she the most accomplished enabler of the very best youth theatre in the land but she has that rare and unique ability to make every member of the youth theatre understand and appreciate their individual unique talents and gives them the self-assurance that will make them tomorrow’s West End stars.
Look out for Jack Keane’s name in lights in a few years’ time. He will be there, I promise you.