Imagine all your favourite characters from Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale, The Wind in the Willows. Except they’re rapping.. and singing.. and signing.. and dancing, hip hop style.
The production from the acclaimed Metta Theatre company, is an explosion of vibrancy, diversity and energy. While suitable for all ages, it’s ideal for older primary school and possibly senior kids too. Adults may find it a little obvious and preachy in terms of its narrative, but for younger audience members it’s a marvellous moral pedagogical tool. We follow the story of Mole (Victoria Boyce), who’s had a tough start in life and finds herself under the wing of Badger (Clive Rowe), as she struggles to make a new start and fit in at the Willows High School. The piece is littered with references to its literary inspiration. The characters visit The Riverbank – a funky hip hop venue where Ratty (Zara Macintosh) mixes the beats and Otter (Chris Fonseca) heads the dance offs.
One of the first and most noticable things that stands out about this new musical, is the creative use of sign language. It’s not unusual to see someone signing, dressed in black at the side of the stage, at certain performances of any show. But the beauty in this is that it is not relegated to the edge. Initially the majority of the signing is done by someone in the corner. But this is an engaged cast member, who is enthrallingly in tune with the centre stage action, acting out the action so we know the difference when she signs each character. Indeed British Sign Language is such an intrinsic part of this production. The entire company uses it and it’s woven into the dance routines with such funk yet elegance, it makes me wonder why we don’t see more of this kind of thing in mainstream productions. Metta are clearly trailblazing here and we can only hope other companies will follow suit.
The show’s diversity is admirable and on display in its casting, writing and even costumes – one character wears a hijab, something rarely seen in musicals. There’s a lot of talk of acceptance and the issue of juvenile delinquency is addressed through the character Toad (Harry Jardine), as the lovable rogue finds himself in clink, just like his father. Chief Weasel (Bradley Charles) is the bad’un, but both characters receive a great deal of references to their bad starts in life, by way of explaining their anti-social behaviours.
This is a thoughtful, joyous piece that’s super inclusive. The songs are not the most memorable and the raps and simple. But for its target audience it really hits the spot, not only as entertainment, but as a super influence on impressionable young people – perfect for school trips and parents/carers looking for a healthy antidote to Fortnite.
Photo courtesy of Richard Davenport.
In The Willows runs at Festival Theatre until Saturday 30th March 2019.