Review by Bella Wellstead
A Mole, a Rat, a Badger, and a Toad walk into a stately old chateau. Carriages are crashed, motorcars are smashed, and a gaggle of no-good predators linger ever in the periphery, hoping to gobble them up. Written by Kenneth Grahame, adapted by Alan Bennett, and directed by James Raggatt, Stacks On Theatre Co.’s The Wind in the Willows is an endearing rumination on the power of friendship.
We meet the meek, young Mole as he ventures for the first time from his hole and into the vast world around it. Wide-eyed, he scampers from the river to the woods to the illustrious Toad Hall. He collects unlikely friends along the way, discovering joy, security, and promise in the camaraderie of the rag-tag group.
Elyse Phelan’s Mole is infectiously eager. Her performance is full of bounce as she balances Mole’s naivete with his perceptiveness. Phelan deftly navigates the creature’s curiosity and vulnerability, delighting with every spry step.
Director James Raggatt plays Rat – Mole’s first friend and mentor – with admirable punctiliousness. He captures the character’s wisdom as a kind of anxious composure and reveals the lingering loneliness that shimmers beneath. The friendship that develops between Rat and Mole is hearteningly easy – it is as though the inquisitive youngster and his fretful confidant are made for one another.
Lachlan Stevenson plays the ancient Badger – a creature whose mischievous spirit clashes charmingly with his wizened carriage and gruff voice. Michael Doris’ performance as the frivolous and boastful Toad is camp and delightfully decadent.
Without a doubt, the detail that stands out most from The Wind and the Willows is the ensemble’s expert control over voice and choreography. Taking place on a bare, traverse stage, the production relies on the introduction of moving set pieces including tunnels, doors, and wagon wheels to bring us along on Mole’s adventure. These pieces are effectively puppeteered by the cast, who appear onstage in full-black garb and with faces obscured. The mastery with which they use their bodies to emulate the shape of a lumpy couch or the lively movement of a river current is incredibly impressive.
Moreover, ensemble members leave no room to doubt the characters that they transition so carefully between. Georgia Blizzard’s Fox is sleek, stylish, and wily. Ross Walker’s Albert the horse is stubborn and stalwart – complete with a hilarious frayed rope tail which he flicks irregularly to and fro. Miranda Daughtry’s Weasel effortlessly walks the line between aloof rockstar and slinking predator. She wears a leopard print blazer and a pair of wraparound sunglasses that elevate her disconcerting skeeviness. She leads a band of antagonists – the forest-dwelling ‘Wild Wooders’ – who hiss and scuttle across the stage, sending a fierce tingle down the spine.
Costume design by Isabella Holder is sublime. From Toad’s frilly, pink button up –contrasting brilliantly with the stubby-fingered green gloves that cover his arms – to the Western-style shirt worn by Albert, Holder’s design is clever and comedic. She captures character brilliantly and draws us into the quaint and eccentric world of the play. This immersion is beautifully furthered by Saint Clair, whose colourful lighting design transforms the bare, black stage into a whimsical and picturesque haven.
At its core, The Wind in the Willows is a sweet and nourishing production. It is elegant yet unpretentious, sprightly yet restrained, and chock full of incredibly talented creatives. Through Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, Stacks on Theatre Co. reminds us that friendship is built on love, labour, and loyalty, for better or for worse.