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in the willows

Review: In The Willows at New Wimbledon Theatre

The Wind In The Willows classic gets a modern revamp with In The Willows for its run at New Wimbledon Theatre

It was a brave move to lay hands on a classic like The Wind In The Willows and transform it into a rap/hip-hop musical set in the inner city. But the gamble has paid off for Metta Theatre, who have not only brought Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical but dated tale of the English countryside screeching into the modern day at 100mph, but have also filled it full of energy, fun and heart.

The audience is pinned back in their seats with exciting displays of street dancing and a score full of hummable tunes that are delivered full throttle by a talented young cast. Writer/director Poppy Burton-Morgan has kept the bones of the original story – Toad jailed for joyriding, weasels squatting in his house – but ruthlessly discarded some of the iconic elements of the book. Riverbank setting? Gone. Cast of loveable talking animals? Gone. The Riverbank is the local nightclub where DJs mess around with beats, not boats. But Burton-Morgan is true to the book’s key themes of friendship and redemption, and explores them to find powerful new meaning.

in the willows

The story starts on vulnerable teenager Mole’s first day at The Willows high school on the tough, inner city Wildwoods estate. It’s her seventh school in seven years and she doesn’t dare to hope she’ll find a friend. But kindly teacher Mr Badger (the brilliant Clive Rowe, in mellifluous voice) asks hip-hop cool girl Rattie to look out for her, and as rich kid rapper Toad and street-dancing Otter teach her the ways of The Riverbank she gradually starts to feel she’s fitting in. Then it all goes wrong, as Mole and Toad get arrested on a stolen motorbike, and a sinister figure from Mole’s past threatens to reveal her most painful secret.

It’s hard to credit that this is the professional debut of Victoria Boyce, who sings lead character Mole powerfully and persuasively. The peacock costumes of X Factor finalist Seann Miley Moore draw the eye, while tense and athletic dance battles – particularly between Chief Weasel (Bradley Charles) and Otter (deaf dancer Chris Fonseca) – provide the dramatic highlight. But  Harry Jardine stole the show as Toad, delivering hilarious lyrics with deadpan cockiness. The ensemble cast gave explosive energy to Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography. It was a shame that the rather basic sets weren’t quite as convincing. Traditionalists may find the complete change of style tough to swallow, but the hard-to-please teenagers I brought along to the show absolutely loved it.