Sitting down in the Oxford Playhouse to see Metta Theatre's In The Willows I am honestly not sure what to expect. I know it is based on the classic novel The Wind in the Willows which for over a century has transported so many children from the riverbank to the meadows and from the meadows to the prestigious Toad Hall and its inflated, comical, beloved Toad.
Yet I am faced by an unfamiliar set on stage featuring two huge green gates and a rather grey background. Some smoke is coming from somewhere. I hear a loud ringing bell. This will likely make you jump, unless you have read this review beforehand! I see how the actors who leap on stage bring colours and movement with great energy and strength. My eyes become synchronised to the dance of the energetic bodies and rhythmic lights on the stage. The beat of the music hits my brain, my heart starts beating fast and my legs decide they want to move.
I might start to try to rap. But I can’t. I have never rapped before, and I am also in a theatre sitting next to my child. Then I remember that I am here for a treat. I might well enjoy this more than my little guest who is completely engrossed in the story, which at her age seems quite different from anything she has been exposed to before. The performance calls for equality and it does so successfully. In this sense it surely has to be good for her.
Over the next two hours of performance she will learn about hip hop, rap, contemporary music and dance, as well as gender, class and diversity. She will also learn from Chris Fonseca’s performance that you can dance only by feeling the vibrations of the music even if you are deaf. You might have to give further explanations to your child after this big concentrated package of information, but every experience comes with a price.
The stage is lively and intense at all times. It is visually compelling and funny. The scenes performed in slow motion, which my seven year old daughter particularly enjoys, add to the play as silence adds to a good musical composition. I wish I had seen more dancing as in the final scene. This gets much well deserved applause.
Toad and Ratty, performed by Harry Jardine and Zara Macintosh, are outstanding. Clive Rowe is as benevolent as the original Badger. The Weasels are as mean as in the original story but they redeem themselves with their catchy songs and strong performances. Victoria Boyce plays a sweet and timid Mole. Seann Miley Moore, playing Duck, undeniably sparkles on the stage and many of the other performers such as Katherine Picar (Bitchy Rabbit) and Abiola Efunshile (Owl) show clearly that they have a great stage presence and are promising talents.
In the Willows is not a sweet and easy play. It is a powerful, complex, intense and purposeful production.