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In the Willows at the Exeter Northcott Review

A rapping toad and friends

February 2019

Photo: Richard Davenport

Produced by Metta Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre

By Jamie Taylor

Another brand-new show starting it’s run at Northcott. Soon after Miles Jupp’s premier one man show of David Tomlinson’s less glamorous life in The Life I Lead a few weeks ago, we move onto the Northcott’s successor In the Willows.

It’s was about time Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian classic children's novel The Wind in the Willows got a face lift for a new generation. It’s nearly 30 years since Alan Bennett’s landmark stage adaption for the National. Now London and Exeter-based theatre company Metta Theatre have created a hip-hop musical version.  Shooting straight into the 21st century with a brilliantly and cleverly written score by Pippa Cleary and Kieran Merrick that unexpectedly ranges from slow to up-tempo songs, it features clever wordplay and rhyming. The ‘Into the Willows’ opening song kicks the piece into action but is then contrasted with slow emotion numbers built over harmonies or rap.

As well as a fresh look at the 1908’s book, the setting is a contemporary urban state school with the riverbed a dance club where everyone meets, and the animals are teenage students. The original names of Mole, Rattie, Toad and so on are retained, nostalgic for fans and paying homage to the original for fresh-eyed newbies. Grahame’s characters remain but have a modern twist. Clive Rowe plays Mr Badger, the caring, loving figure that looks after his students. Mole played by Victoria Boyce as the shy, nervous Emo kid who likes wearing black and who’s stating at a new school. Zara MacIntosh who plays outspoken Rattie; and Toad the naughty, rule-breaking is played by Harry Jardine. Otter is played by deaf actor Chris Fonseca who signs the show with the help from the conventional stage singer right of the stage.

New creative twists are added to this historic gem. With the comic device of Toad’s pet goldfish called Alan, Toad escaping from prison inside a washing machine and Mole’s dead brother the backbone to the second half of the story is somewhat stronger than the first act. Some of the plot a bit of a struggle to follow, this is the hip-hop Edwardian story, after all. People who know the tale won’t have a problem, but newcomers may struggle. The sequences are fantastic, but it’s a shame to not see the main plot come through at times. But let the music and dance flow over you: this is visual excellence.

Plot aside, the choreography and dance numbers are exceptional, gelling with the rhythm. The cast is a fantastic bunch.  Mole and Rattie’s vocals are spectacular and so is Toad’s (as well as his rapping) whether they’re on their own or in the ensemble, sung slow or fast. Their moves are a credit to choreographer Rhimes Lecointe’s.  Every number has an energy worthy of top-class theatre.

Does it really need a clear story, or can it be enjoyed the way it is? Only time will tell – but Metta Theatre and the Northcott has a new hit on its hands as well as some catchy songs.

In the Willows moves from the Exeter Northcott to Portsmouth, Coventry, Edinburgh, Keswick, Oxford, York, Malvern, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch and Bristol.

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