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Wind In The Willows At The Theatre

17/01/2013 13:11 | Updated 22 May 2015

Finding a theatrical treat which will appeal to the whole family - without breaking the bank - can be a tall order, especially if pantomime really isn't your thing.

For those lucky enough to live in reach to one of the country's dedicated children's theatre companies, the challenge is made a lot easier. Polka theatre in South West London is unusual in that it not only produces shows for younger audiences, but it also stages them in its own purpose built children's theatre.

Polka's tendency to select much-loved children's classics for its productions ensures that it also appeals to parents in search of high quality entertainment, as well perhaps as a hint of nostalgia.

Their latest offering, Wind in the Willows certainly doesn't disappoint. It is aimed at children between the ages of five and 11. This is a characteristically crowd-pleasing production – parents clearly enjoy it as much as their children.

Specially adapted from Kenneth Grahame's classic story of friendship and adventure, the show offers exuberant acting, playful staging and props and plenty of catchy songs. To the delight of the young audience there are also a few opportunities to channel a little of the pantomime spirit and shout out some advice.

The play is framed beautifully through the passing of the seasons. Each is introduced with a simple song and some charming depictions of how nature changes as the year unfolds.

As in the book, the characters are each given a chance to show their personalities and strengths, and the audience soon grows fond of them all. Mole is dreamy and shy, Ratty open and kind and badger gruff but loyal. Of course most people's favourite is Toad though - arrogant, big-headed and flamboyant – but somehow everyone loves him.

In the Polka's version he is played brilliantly by Robert Saunders and the young audience can't get enough of his showing off, exaggeration and general naughtiness.

There are some clever tricks in the staging which hint at the interaction between this wonderful imagined world of animals and that of humans. Ratty's boat is propelled by soup spoon oars while Toad's brief infatuation with the joys of caravanning is played out in a converted Colman's mustard tin on wheels. His eventual incarceration is not in a prison, but in the jam jar of a nature-collecting child.

The themes of the book are lovely ones to discuss with young children – friendship, loyalty and the security of home – and here they are gently and enjoyably explored.

There is plenty of energy too though. The scene in which Toad races off in his motor car, having managed to escape the house arrest under which his well-meaning friends have placed him, is a particular success.

As toad tears recklessly along in his clockwork car, a fast-moving reel of silent movies is projected behind him. The action-packed fight scene, in which the play's heroes defeat the wild-wooders who have taken over Toad Hall, is also clearly a favourite with the play's viewers.

Wind in the Willows is a real treat: heart-warming without being sickly and amusing without resorting to the often crude humour of so many productions supposedly aimed at families. This is a great choice for anyone looking to cheer up a gloomy post- Christmas afternoon.

For details of Wind in the Willows and other forthcoming productions at Polka Theatre see www.polkatheatre.com

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