Some things are so indelibly linked to summer in Melbourne they are easy to take for granted. Wind in the Willows in the Botanical Gardens would have to be top of the list of shows we simply can’t do without. Ratty, Mole, Badger, Otter and Toad may be more British than the English Cricket Team, but if we can take back the Ashes, we can appropriate this lot for our own summer amusement.
Settling down on the bank of the river – actually the man-made lake in the middle of the gardens, but let’s not split hairs – the audience is ushered into the spirit of things by Head Chief Rabbit [Roscoe Mathers] and Weasel [Jim Dunlop]. They sing and banter and get everyone into the mood, before Mole [Andi Snelling] turns up and gets the play officially started.
Although, to be accurate, the first twenty minutes or so is taken up with a series of introductions, most memorably that of Ratty [Jack Beeby] and Toad [Andrew Dunne], both boating their way to the playing space. The fruity Badger [Nicholas Dubberley] and the frisky Otter [Nicholas Renfree-Marks] round out the cast, and soon an adventure is underway.
For anyone who has read the sublime Kenneth Grahame novel, this Wind in the Willows may require some slight adjustments. Gone is the glorious lyricism of the original prose, gone much of the intricacies of plot and character. In their place, though, is an appropriate rough-house charm in the performances, and hilariously inappropriate modern references and idioms.
Thus we have quotes from Jaws and Deliverance, passing mentions of Justin Beaver and Miley Cyprus Tree. A fantastic descent into text speak brings down the house, and a string of insults directed at Badger’s black and white face ends in the most cutting of all: Collingwood supporter.
Audience interaction is constant and unintimidating, except for the poor sod who is selected to play a general and is then teased mercilessly for the rest of the show. The most fun comes when the kids are rounded up and taken on various adventures, leaving Head Chief Rabbit and Weasel to rifle through the audience’s picnic baskets and guzzle people’s wine. Rabbit demands to know why Weasel is stealing food, to which he answers ‘I’m starving!’ ‘Of course you’re starving,’ replies Rabbit. ‘You’re an actor!’
The play runs for over an hour and a half, which is a long time for the smallest members of the audience, and herein lies the genius of this production. Theatre that appeals to all ages is incredibly difficult to calibrate, and each time the focus threatens to waver, some piece of slapstick or audience interaction comes along to drive the play onwards. The appearance of mayhem is just that, with Mike Bishop’s direction calculated to look non-existent. Amanda Watts’ design is a delight, down to Ratty’s colour-coordinated Converse.
The performers are a lot of fun, especially our guides Rabbit and Weasel. Andrew Dunne’s Toad is suitably self-obsessed, even if more could be made of the role. His escape from prison dressed as a washer-woman feels like an afterthought. Nicholas Renfree-Marks is a riot as Otter, as well as a Rumpolian Judge.
If you have kids and have neglected your parental responsibilities in past years, you really need to grab tickets to this show. Even without them, it’s a charming way to spend an evening, and a truly Melbournian way to usher in the warmer months.
The Wind in the Willows
Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, Gate F, Birdwood Ave, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 2 January 2014 – 6.00pm
Season continues to 25 January 2014
Bookings: 1300 122 344 or online at: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au
For more information, visit: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au for details.
Image: Andrew Dunne as Mr Toad and Andi Snelling as Mole
Review: Tim Byrne