The Wind in the Willows

What is it about attics? From "Jane Eyre" to "Edward Scissorhands," storytellers have used dusty rooms at the tops of houses for the unveiling of secrets. And so it is with William Tuckett's dance version of "The Wind in the Willows."

John Lasseter

What is it about attics? From “Jane Eyre” to “Edward Scissorhands,” storytellers have used dusty rooms at the tops of houses for the unveiling of secrets. And so it is with William Tuckett’s dance version of “The Wind in the Willows.” The narrator tells of being “awake but dreaming in the attic of my house,” and auds are invited to discover the lost secrets of Edwardian childhood as conjured up in this classic children’s tale of friends Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad. But for all the intermittent pleasures of this gentle riverbank adventure, Tuckett’s version is far stronger on mood than it is on movement.

In this revival of a production first seen in 2002, the prevailing tone is instantly set by the melancholic opening melody drawn from George Butterworth’s tone poem “A Shropshire Lad,” played by a 12-piece chamber orchestra. Martin Ward’s evocative score takes this minor-key reverie and runs with it before lightening things with his arrangement of Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow.”

The latter tune — also used as a nostalgic scene-setter in Jeremy Sams’ production of “Donkey’s Years” — is to rural England what Aaron Copland’s scores are to wide-open-spaces Americana. And Tuckett and his team lend it theatrical life with character portraits of Englishness.

Nicky Gillibrand’s excellent costumes imaginatively convey the creatures without resorting to either fur suits or masks. She and Tuckett make them recognizable human characters, with just enough costume and choreographic detail to suggest animals.

Instead of webbed feet and shiny green skin, exuberant Ewan Wardrop’s bumptious Toad is a perfect clash of long-legged stripes and loud checks, topped off with faintly green hair. Taciturn Badger (Richard Curto) has a Sherlock Holmes-ish pipe clamped permanently between his lips.

Charm, a seriously undervalued commodity, is plentiful here, particularly in Charlotte Broom’s Mole, sweetly myopic in little round spectacles, who is rolled out of a carpet and looks permanently but sweetly bewildered.

All of them are in the childlike world of the Brothers Quay, whose set designs cunningly echo the way children turn everything at hand to imaginative advantage. Thus, attic furniture plays multiple roles. One minute, a flowing blue tablecloth is being pulled from a drawer in the bottom of a wardrobe to become the river; the next, the wardrobe is wheeled around to become a gypsy caravan driven by a rocking-horse. The giant wooden chair that Toad flings himself about in is overturned to form the bars of a cage when he’s imprisoned.

Stylistically, the show lies between such precursors as Frederick Ashton’s ballet film “Tales of Beatrix Potter” and his gallery of English types in “Enigma Variations” along with Matthew Bourne’s narrative dance works like “Swan Lake.” Tuckett, like Ashton, is driven by character. What he doesn’t yet display is Bourne’s flair for building that into sustained storytelling.

Choreographically, he creates characterful ideas but doesn’t develop them. Motion’s overly contemplative narration doesn’t help, especially when rather enervatingly declaimed in sing-song manner by Michele Wade, who struggles for audibility. But even in scenes that don’t depend on words, narrative is often blurry before coming into focus for the main points of the action.

This is partly the fault of a story that really only gets going in the second half. Imprisoned for disastrously crashing his car, Toad springs himself from jail via the love-struck washerwoman’s daughter (a hilariously eager Luke Heydon), then bands together with his friends to win back Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. Heydon winningly doubles as a marvelously sneery, rockabilly Chief Weasel.

What Tuckett does have is wit, which is usually in short supply with choreographers. To the delight of not just children, policemen chasing Toad race through the foyer during the interval, blowing whistles and causing mayhem. And the first half climaxes with wintery carol singing as wet snow cascades onto the audience.

Much of the show, however, is worryingly reliant on auds knowing the original or reading the program’s scene-by-scene synopsis. That Tuckett succeeds in sending everyone home with a smile has more to do with his winningly affectionate vision of a well-loved story than with fully achieved theatrical choreography.

The Wind in the Willows

Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London; 400 seats; £21 $41 top

  • Production: A Royal Opera House 2 presentation of a ballet in two acts choreographed and directed by William Tuckett from the novel by Kenneth Grahame, with narration by Andrew Motion. Music by Martin Ward after George Butterworth. Conducted by Tim Murray.
  • Crew: Sets, the Quay Brothers; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Karen Norris; production stage manager, Will Harding. Opened Dec. 15, 2006. Reviewed Dec. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Toad - Ewan Wardrop Mole - Charlotte Broom Ratty - Nikolas Kafetzakis Badger - Richard Curto Otter, Chief Weasel, Gaoler's Daughter - Luke Heydon Judge - Mark Evans Narrator - Michele Wade <b>With:</b> Emma Brunton, Catherine May, Hannah Pedley, Tom Sapsford.
  • Music By: