Many light years ago now I started an MA in Children's Literature. It seemed like a natural follow-on from that OU degree and perhaps I also had the studying bug (whilst working full time in the NHS and raising a family, renovating a house...whatever madness possessed me?) Anyway I saw the error of my ways and stopped after the first term but the truth was not so much the work load as the fact that it was unravelling all my cherished memories of childhood reading, and those seemed far too precious to unpick with literary analysis.
Likewise, mess unfavourably with The Wind in the Willows and I suspect the entire family dovegrey would take up arms and man the barricades, because if there is one story that has burrowed its way into the hearts of our family it has to be Kenneth Grahame's story. We lived and breathed the videos back in the day when David Jason played Mr Toad and Michael Hordern was that wonderfully wise and stern Badger, and if we ever wanted to share a massive and nostalgic family moment it would be to put those films back on and sing along to Mr Toad's Schussboomer skiing song.
Sorry I can't help it, we have to have a quick chorus...it's Saturday, we are allowed to play...
Or we would all listen to Alan Bennet reading the audio version.
This was my dad's absolute favourite, a huge comfort after my mum died...he would listen at night if he couldn't sleep, and we played it almost constantly for solace as we sat with him in those final days of his life last year. It was also the obvious choice for that short time at the end of a funeral when we had left the church and everyone sits for a while. I think people might have been expecting some rousing Royal Marine Life on the Ocean Wave band music instead of which it was Alan Bennet's dulcet tones...
'The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs. with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.'
'Bother...O Blow...Hang spring cleaning' my dad used to say, quoting Mole, whenever I went in and found him hoovering.
So when you hear that a much-loved story has 'gone musical'...well to be honest I hadn't really been paying attention, so what a good thing that the Kayaker (son) had been passing the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and nipped in and bought tickets for Bookhound and me as a present for my birthday. Then I was definitely paying attention, firstly seeing a piece on local TV and then spotting it mentioned in the critics choice as 'One to See' in the weekend press, because Plymouth was hosting the two week world premiere run and lucky lucky us to be going on day five.
As we drove into the city on Wednesday evening we were trying to remember the last musical that we had seen together. The best we could come up with was Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat in London with smallish children just after Philip Schofield had taken over the lead from Jason Donovan.... that's how often we both turn out for a musical. I could slot in a lack lustre performance of Oklahoma with a group of girlfriends and a brilliant performance of Jersey Boys but that was about it, so we are hardly experts on all this, but we were utterly swept away by The Wind in the Willows.
Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame has turned his hand to this and created the most surprising yet perfect transformation, and as we took to our seats in the Circle, with the orchestra tuning up in the pit, we suddenly appreciated that this was a live musical just like the old days and was going to be a real treat.
When the first overture started we were right there and you can be there too, here it is... Spring. It brings tears to my eyes just listening again...especially at about 1.27
Rufus Hound played a wondrously flamboyant Mr Toad, just enough bluff and bluster and brag and boast but not too much. It's a role that could easily go pantomime but he reined it in and did the contrition brilliantly too. Whether intentional or not there was a good spread of cultural diversity too with Fra Fee (Irish) as Mole, suitably ponderous and ever so slightly slow on the uptake, while Thomas Howes as Rat (English) was sharper but wonderfully kind and apologetic and of course David Birrell's Badger (Scots) was wise and imperious taking charge as necessary. They all had splendid singing voices and I vow the Stiles and Drewe lyrics will become classics. I will be the first in the queue to buy the CD to hear them singing about home and friendships...two of the big themes that wrapped themselves around and through the performance. Mrs Otter played by Sophia Nomvete was splendid...the otters swam on and off stage, plump ones, sleek ones, all elegant...a bit like a synchronised swimming team and it was these little touches of recognisable twenty-first century modernity that created something special.
In contrast to the gentle river bank scenes the wild wood was all edge and energy with the weasels dressed as gangster-style spivs and dandies, the foxes very cleverly as huntsmen sporting enormous brush tails and the poor old stoats as the put-upon foot-soldiers. Some of their song and dance routines were fast and furious, others quite balletic and all fantastically accomplished...we were seriously impressed and spellbound. You know that degree of spellbound when you are blissfully unaware of everyone sitting around you and completely focused on the stage and the action. You almost come round at the end and wonder where you are and if someone had munched their way through a bag of popcorn in my ear I certainly didn't notice it.
And will we ever forget the little hedgehog family dressed as a scout troop and trying to cross the road ...after a few false starts their mother whispers 'they're not ready yet' and they live to try another day.
And oh oh oh the wassailing mice. Apart from the fact that I want one, the children sang beautifully as Mole and Ratty sat looking out from Mole's cosy winter home, and the song itself has to be another classic in the offing.
I must mention both the sets and the accoutrements. River banks and houses glided effortlessly on and off stage, burrows became mansions, woodland became river, boats rowed across the stage and who can forget Mr Toad's cars. A sort of Morgan 'Toadster' (thank you Bookhound) built on stage with the precision of a Formula One team in the pits but producing a car straight out of the old days ...and then there was the washerwoman's barge and the train, all magnificent and clearly a well-drilled backstage crew getting it all on and off at the right moment and in the right place...and for Day Five not putting a foot wrong.
And so the musical that could have been a massacre of a much-loved story was a triumph, we'd go and see it again no question, if The Wind in the Willows is playing at a theatre near you please don't miss it.
Books to musicals?
Any that haven't been done and might work?