Looking at Wind In The Willows in musical theatre

Like Peter Pan there have been many stage versions over the years.  But unlike Peter Pan which was written as a play this was originally a book.  Wind in the Willows was written by Kenneth Grahame and published in 1908.  Grahame had retired from The Bank of England and was living by the side of the Thames, his inspiration for stories he would tell his son and later the book.  From the start it was a remarkable piece, perhaps only equalled in its use of animal characters to show human foibles by Animal Farm many decade later.


England in 1908 was a joyous place.  It was re-finding itself after the long Victorian period and was a period of many changes, especially in the field of entertainment and travel.  The book itself was a celebration of modernity and the central character, Mr Toad, wealthy enough to partake of all the new things devised to enhance his life.  He is indeed lucky to have friends that care and stick with him while he does unacceptable things – he is a naughty boy in a man’s clothing.

The story meanders along the river and brings to life the animals that inhabit it.  They represent river life in human form.  It was a messing about in boats tale in a way that Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat had been.  It was not until 1929 that the first stage adaptation arrived and that was by the astute children’s writer A A Milne who is still remembered for his Christopher Robin tales.  His adaptation centred on Toad and was indeed called Toad of Toad Hall.  It was a play that would be performed year after year.

There have, of course, been American versions but, perhaps, the subtlety of the original is lost in its three thousand mile journey and there have been no real successes. 

On the other hand Alan Bennett’s 1991 adaptation for the National Theatre, which stayed true to the original, was an outstanding success and was revived and toured.  This no doubt this will remain the classic version.

Film and Television especially has revisited the story many times without producing a classic.  It is a case that the original was so perfect it has been difficult to improve.

The latest version has attempted to bring in what is almost a love interest, the invention of the character Portia, the daughter of Mrs Otter, the originals are a male Otter and his son Portley.  Now the daughter is flighty and forever disappearing (quite the average teenager) and eventually gets caught with the invasion of Toad Hall.  She is eventually saved from ‘a fate worse than death’ or, as it would seem, a simple fatting up to death.  In fact the ending of the show does not leave one thinking that the animals can live in peace together – a great shame and not the moral of the book.

Like Harry Potter, the original book may appear a children’s novel but in truth is for all ages and one can read into it more as one ages.  But perhaps the thing to remember is that it should remain a ‘read into’ and not one to add to.