While the original edition of The Wind in the Willows was penned in 1908 by Englishman Kenneth Grahame, the 2013-14 adaptation of the well-loved children's tale has not only all the charm of the 106 year old story, but injects much of its own humour into the retelling as well.
Set on the banks of a lake in the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens, the Australian Shakespeare Company's presentation of The Wind in the Willows initially seems perhaps a little drab. There is no set initially, and those who arrived late (or are sitting anywhere other than directly in the center) may find it difficult to hear dialogue when it is presented to a different section of the audience. Still, the story is charming, following Grahame's original tale of Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad, with their friends appearing and disappearing along the way. From the beginning, the audience are turned into a pack of rabbits by the Head Chief Rabbit (Roscoe Mathers), and we are encouraged to wiggle our ears and noses, and sing along with the distinctly Australiana-tinged songs. Character introductions are brief but expressive, making use of the lake backdrop to introduce Ratty (Jack Beeby) and Mr. Toad (Andrew Dunne) on a boat and a canoe respectively, while Mole (Andi Snelling), Badger (Nicholas Dubberley), Weasel (Jim Dunlop), Otter (Nicholas Renfree-Marks), and Portly (Tamalyn Davies for our performance, though the role rotates between four children) appear from out of bushes or from behind trees, bringing a very natural feel to the show.
Partway through, after the story has sufficiently progressed, and the characters move on to Toad Hall, you are expected to shift to a different area of the gardens. (I feel this constitutes a warning for those who have packed a large or complicated picnic, or chairs that do not easily fold.) Being uprooted without warning was somewhat unimpressive, especially given that moving any disabled audience members across the grass can be difficult, and that smaller children may have been relegated to the back of the new seating arrangement, with potentially obscured vision. However, the move was soon forgotten as the show continued, with the gleeful and extremely enthusiastic performers bringing the minds of the audience back to the story at hand.
Of the performers, I found Dunne to be the most appealing, playing the braggart Mr. Toad with delightfully exaggerated movements, while still capturing toadlike mannerisms and flicking his tongue to catch flies. Dubberly plays a wonderfully droll Badger, contrasting well with Snelling's shy, initially quiet Mole, and Beeby's charming, active Ratty. Renfree-Marks as Otter – and later, a police office slash judge – brings a great humour to the stage as the jolly critter, and Davies deserves a mention for performing well against the rest of the seasoned cast. Mathers' Rabbit brings the crew together perfectly as he criticises Dunlop's Weasel – who turns out to be a less than friendly individual by the end of the show – while they steal food from audience picnic baskets together.
To get the most out of the show, just enjoy the surroundings and let the performance wash over you. It's not thought-provoking or indepth, it's just delightful fun, set against the gorgeousness of summer in the gardens. The cast obviously enjoy themselves as they fall into their roles, and inamongst the original story are added tidbits of pop culture humour, including references to Miley "Cypress" and Justin "Beaver", as well as little jokes for adults as well. At one point the cast members kidnap all the children and lead them on a wild goose chase across the gardens for a missing character, but anyone is free to stay behind (with the 'old and slow' audience rabbits encouraged to remain) to hear what essentially amounts to a long list of otter- and weasel-based puns. In any case, the charm of the story has still not worn off after more than a hundred years since its conception, and this particular adaptation has no less the charm than the original.