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Wind in the Willows opens at The Watermill

YOU could take the children to a pantomime this holiday season. You could, and the hilarity of it all is certain to entertain. But you could avoid the risk of hearing endless renditions of the latest adaptation of The Twelve Days of Christmas, by heading to The Watermill for Toby Hulse's version of the Kenneth Grahame classic The Wind in the Willows.

No hissing and booing in this one, but it's engaging nonetheless. On Saturday, every child in the house was either on the edge of their seat or hanging precariously over the circle balcony at the moment of Toad's capture.

Speaking of Toad, Howard Coggins is magnificent. His pure range of emotions, swinging from conceit to fury to despair in the blink of an eye, is extraordinary.

Naomi Sheldon's interpretation of Mole is entirely lovable and Phillip Buck provides a cornerstone performance as Ratty, but the show is stolen by Jack Beale in his roles as Black Rat, Ferret and Rabbit.

Individual performances aside, what gives this play its edge is the magnificent setting and the great use it is put to.

Walking past the willow on the riverbank sets the scene, and with a little luck a slight breeze through the branches will help you start the tale before you even walk through the door.

Once inside, the intimate nature of the theatre is ideal for a children's play, where the proximity of the action pulls everyone into the dream.

Surprising, though, how much is achieved on stage with so little. A subtle change of lighting and a single falling leaf immediately changes the season from summer to autumn, with a dancing blue light on the floor bringing the river to life.

But a good children's play, as any parent will know, has nothing if it doesn't have something for the grown-ups, and here the soft rhythmical Southern swing of the musically-talented cast easily gets you through the sometimes repetitious children's humour.

Steve Watts as Badger stands out. His muted trumpet and soulful trombone is enough to leave you gasping for more, with Lauren Storer's talent hidden, but not unheard on the keyboard.

Indeed, composer Simon Slater got the best out his cast's range of skills, with everything from a saxophone to a banjo making an appearance.

And as you leave the theatre with the rhythms dancing through your head, the warm, comforting feeling that you exposed little ones to both culture and a lesson in values will certainly last longer than the candyfloss entertainment of a bearded fellow dressed as a fairy godmother.

Eddie van der Walt

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