The Wind in the Willows @ Northern Stage, Newcastle

Written by Kenneth Grahame 1908, and adapted by Alan Bennett.
Music by Jeremy Sams.

Tales of companionship and adventure in The Wind in the Willows at Northern Stage adapted by the marvellous Alan Bennett, was performed with style, class and colour.

When a young Mole chances to convene with the loving Ratty, they adventure together and discover the delights of the riverside, Toad Hall and the Wild Wood.

Toad, played by Mark Benton is always looking for his next adrenaline fix, and when he fancies his chances at theft and steals a young couples’ motorcar, he’s sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.

Alas he manages to escape by disguising himself as a washerwoman, yet to his dismay his family’s beloved country manor, Toad Hall, has fallen into the wrong paws.

The Weasels have commandeered it, and in turn Toad has to gather all of his friends in order to return Toad Hall to its rightful owner.

As we’re introduced to the characters throughout the performance, it’s very clear that each person has been cast especially for their individual part. Each actor efficiently conveys the character they’re portraying, and I found myself enticed and drawn into the story almost immediately.

We first meet Ruth Johnson playing the timid and naive Mole, immediately taking a shine to anyone that pays him attention.

Despite the fact that this story starts with Mole, and we follow him right the way through, Ruth’s done very well not to attempt to upstage any of her supporting actors.

There’s a fine line between doing your individual role justice, and over playing it. I noticed this throughout with some of the less significant characters alike the Rabbits and Squirrels.

I can happily say that they were definitely on the right side of that line, and the whole performance was delivered with a charming professionalism.

Jonathan Price plays the good natured and very well spoken, upper class Water Rat who takes Mole under his wing, and goes on to teach the ways of the forest.

Our first encounter with Ratty depicts him rowing down the river on his boat; this is illustrated by a large rotating section of the stage. I thought this was a particularly well thought out idea, as it’s used throughout the performance to depict the characters travelling.

As we go on to meet the two other lead roles of Toad (Benton) and Badger (Justin Webb), the whole performance comes together, as they all bounce off each other.

It’s very obvious the actors have a good rapport with each other and this makes the entire experience all the more enjoyable.

There was a fantastic mix of accents divided through the cast from the Geordie Field Mice, which was a great regional touch, to Ratty and Badger’s crisp London based accents. However my only criticism on that front would be that of the Magistrate Judges.

Be it because he was getting bored of the role, or he was purely attempting to inject more into it, I don’t know – but his very thick and strange Southern London accent had me perplexed at first. It seemed rather unfitting but still humorous, so perhaps that’s just me.

On the other hand this story was always going to be aimed towards a young audience. I shared the experience with two primary schools and needless to say the kids loved it.

As for the set design it was very good on the whole. A scene that personally stuck out in my mind was when we first meet Toad outside Toad Hall, when the audience are treated to a wonderfully diverse pallet of colour.
The lighting team did a great job of illustrating the season change, as the story is set over about a year.

There were several different vehicles created purposely for this production, all of which were very well decorated and free moving – Toad’s motorcar and horse drawn caravan, Ratty’s river boat and the barge (a giant Sardine can).

The Rabbits and Squirrels doubled up as stage hands hopping on and off, bringing and recollecting props as and when required – serving as a constant reminder that we were still in a forest type scenario. The writers really went that extra mile.

The criminal-minded cockney Weasels doubled up as an onstage band.
They performed about five numbers over the course of the performance that were all very well written, with the other forest creatures chiming in as a chorus.

I was especially impressed when inspecting the instrumentation of the quartet, of which included a mandolin, guitar, accordion, harmonica and kazoo – all were played to a high standard.
Overall I was very impressed with the production value and the actor’s professionalism; it was a great family performance depicting some light hearted comedy and pure workmanship.

I managed to grab a few minutes with James Hunter after the show, James played one of the Rabbits and understudied four other parts.

James is a young up and coming actor and thus far he’s performed in a handful of on onstage productions, not to mention a couple of national television commercials.

How have you found the entire production on the whole?

It been fantastic, I’ve learned so much from being around an experienced cast.

Have you found it hard knowing the others have had more experience?

Not at all – I’m just starting out really and it’s been hard work, but everybody’s been there for one another. It’s not like I’m better than you, because I’ve done more stuff – even Mark’s been whinging a bit.

This has been the biggest production you’ve been involved in so far, do you get nervous?

Yeah sure, but that comes part and parcel with acting. If I became too comfortable on stage I think it would effect my performance.
At times we’ve had some younger audiences in that haven’t reacted to the performance the way you would expect, and that can be off putting.

What been the best aspect of it all?

Seeing your friends and family in the audience enjoying themselves –that’s great.

What’s the future looking like for James Laurence?

Well, I’ve got a pretty big audition next week for a National soap, but I couldn’t possibly say which one…

With thanks to Northern Stage, and James Laurence

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