In the Willows at New Wimbledon Theatre

Since this was a production that massively involved the National Deaf Children’s Society, I was, as I always am with productions that feature signing, extremely excited to see how they would utilise this form of communication in their show. In terms of accessibility and signing, I wasn’t disappointed. Rhimes Lecointe beautifully, and effortlessly incorporated sign language into the routines. As the characters often iterated; learning sign language is like learning a dance, and they certainly made it look as captivating as one. What shows like this can do for the deaf community in terms of promoting accessibility cannot be understated.

Photos by Richard Davenport

In fact, the BSL interpreter stole the show. I’ve hunted for her name, as she’s not credited on the cast list, but she outshone the cast at times with her enthusiasm and acting through sign. It was very hard not to watch her, and I heard many outside the theatre remark the same. A truly remarkable job.

I’ve been unsure how to judge this show in a few ways. It felt, at times, like a hit West End musical, and at times, like a TIE performance. Possibly too grown up for children in that lyrically it was very fast paced, but also too young in theme for many adults. A plot for kids, delivered for adults. It’s a difficult one to find the right audience for.

Cast-wise, Harry Jardine (Toad) was the clear leader of the pack. His talent and charisma really sold the show for me, and I’m not sure how I would’ve felt about it without him there. His delivery was effortless, his comedy and comic timing flawless, and he really showcased the ‘hip-hop’ style of the show with ease. This was an issue for other cast members at times, and probably the number one let down of this production. Quite often the cast weren’t able to deliver the difficult flowing rhymes quite so effortlessly which meant that lyrically, and stylistically, the show could be hit and miss. There were many lines that had the audience laughing out loud, or applauding their speedy delivery, and then other, almost whole numbers, that felt cringey and contrived. Like watching a Hamilton parody. Rapping just wasn’t needed for all the numbers, hence the contrivance.

That said, the comedy throughout the whole performance was brilliant with real laugh out loud moments, the numbers were polished, the choreography was ever dependable and very impressive. I can’t praise Lecointe enough for the punchy routines, even the scene changes became something to keep an eye out for, smoothly taking scenes from one to another and moving set without distraction. Chris Fonseca (Otter), and Bradley Charles (Chief Weasel), in particular were exemplary dancers, ever watchable and likeable, even when Weasel’s character wasn’t.

The opening number of In The Willows didn’t quite pack the punch it could have vocally, with the harmonies becoming a bit shouty, but what the cast lacked in polished harmonies they made up for with energetic, tight choreography. The range of everyone’s vocals throughout the show was truly phenomenal, and the harmonies improved greatly after the first number.

Often when songs overlapped, the juxtaposition of melodies was beautiful, with harmonies lovely, and lyrics clever – but the lack of plot and any character development meant that those moments, which could have been punchy and goosebump inducing, were left just at lovely.

Victoria Boyce (Mole), was a small weak link in the cast. Boyce had a powerful voice, with a gorgeous tone, and an exceptional range – but everything else fell slightly short. Odd character choices coupled with an lacklustre dance style made her an awkward fit for the cast. Mole is supposed to be the odd one out in the bunch anyway, and most of the time that fit adequately, but occasionally her delivery of the hip-hop style rapping was just too awkward and genuinely uncomfortable to watch.

I was anxious to see Clive Rowe, as I often am when a ‘celebrity’ is cast, but I needn’t have worried. Rowe did a beautiful job with an impressive soulful voice. Perhaps slightly more training on delivering certain rap sections, but he was easily up there with the most talented members of cast. His Act 2 solo was one of the best in the show, his vocals were astounding, and the applause following was by far the loudest.

Overall, In The Willows prefers style over substance – with a touch more plot and a few tweaks to uncomfortable lyric patterns, this show could be a real hit with adults as well as families and teens.

Review by Mims Melville

In The Willows is touring. Find out where on their website.

If you like this review of In the Willows you might also like my review of Madagascar, My Left (Right) Foot and Dr Doolittle.

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