A flawless performance by Ryan Hawke as Mr Toad is one of the highlights of this exuberant and playful production staged in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens.
Pantomimes at Christmas are a distinctly English custom, one that never really caught on in earnest in Australia. And while the Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of The Wind In The Willows doesn’t bill itself as pantomime, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to be at a show shouting 'he’s behind you!' at the stage, it’s pretty reminiscent of the genre.
The production starts lakeside in Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens, where we’re introduced to Ratty, Mole, Badger, Weasel, Otter and Portly, and briefly, Mr Toad.
The audience is seated in front of the lake and characters act all around them and in parts even travel across the water.
The energy is high, there are lots of songs, dancing and audience participation. There are also more than a few daggy adult jokes thrown in to keep the older audience members entertained ('Who invited you to this party?' 'Corey Worthington').
Cast members carouse through the audience, stealing food from picnic baskets and generally making the kids laugh uproariously, and it’s hard to tell what’s ad-libbed and what’s scripted, which is always a good sign.
The second half of the show kicks off after a brief traipse through the gardens to the second set, the glorious Toad Hall, and this is where things start to get really fun.
Mr Toad is always the star of any Wind In The Willows production, and Ryan Hawke does a simply flawless, phenomenal job. All the actors do a fantastic job of singing, playing instruments and delivering tight, colourful characterisations, but Mr Toad takes the cake. Weasel, played by Paul Morris, was also particularly good.
Towards the end of the second half, the kids are taken on a trip to find Portly by Badger, Head Chief Rabbit and Mole. Parents of the very little ones can go along. While that takes place, the adult audience left behind is treated to a series of more grown-up gags and some cover songs, including 'Hop Around Like A Bunny' (set to the tune of Daft Punk’s 'Get Lucky') and a rap entitled 'Weasel, Leave Toad Hall Alone' (set to the tune of Pink Floyd’s 'The Wall').
The production celebrated its 30th year back in 2016 and is Australia’s longest running ‘stage’ show and it’s clear that they’ve refined it so well over the years that it’s difficult to find many if any weak spots in scripting, staging or acting.
The only adjustment producers might make would be trimming back the running time ever so sightly – the kids under five had visibly exhausted their supply of adrenaline-fuelled glee about 30 minutes before the show wrapped.
But even then, they left with silly, satisfied grins on their faces and good time was had by all.
4 stars: ★★★★
The Wind in the Willows
An Australian Shakespeare Company production
On until 27 January 2019
Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne
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