It is funny sometimes how certain books and stories hang around long after they have become completely outdated. I was thinking about this at the weekend after going to the West End production of ‘Wind in the Willows’ at the Palladium. I am fan of musical theatre anyway and there is some good stuff in the West End if people are similarly inclined; the musical version of ‘School of Rock’ is tremendous fun for example, and the current revival of ‘42nd Street’ is positively exhausting to watch as the tap dancing is superb, constant and full on. I am also a fan of the work of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe whose work is positively charming, if a little silly. The additional songs they provided to the stage version of ‘Mary Poppins’ and more recently ‘Half A Sixpence’ are by far my favourite songs from those productions. On their own though, I do feel they get a bit bogged down in their own cleverness to deliver a cheese laden rhyme a bit too often.
But I heartily enjoyed ‘Wind in the Willows’ as it has too much charm not leave you with a smile on your face and the cast give it all they can as this is not the kind of production that fits well with subtle. At its best it almost descends into Monty Python farce – notably as Mr Toad is chased by the not very competent forces of law following his escape from prison disguised as a washer woman – and the weasels are having too much fun being bad (but not too bad, this is after all a family show).
But coming back to my opening; ‘Wind in the Willows’ is so wonderfully outdated in so many ways. That’s perhaps not surprising since the book dates from 1908. It is all about a weird world of animals that reflects our own through the anthropomorphism with loads of unsubtle subtext on class, which, being form 1908, ends up with the idiot aristocracy back in charge and very little changed despite the defeat of the uprising of the arguably working class mob (something that the musical version pulls out well – the folk of the Wild Wood really believe that they have a right to Toad Hall, which Mr Toad of course takes completely for granted).
So why does it sustain? I think two main reasons for me. The first is to anchor the story with central core of the friendship and camaraderie of the characters of Toad, Ratty, Mole and Badger; this is the core of the book and strongly – perhaps a tad too strongly – played out in the musical version, through song obviously. The message is a simple explanation of something rather more complex; if someone is a friend, you stick by them through thick and thin, even if they are sometimes really, really, annoying.
Secondly for me, it is the fantasy element which allows some of the outdated attitudes that are present by virtue of the date of writing to be absorbed into the imagined parallel animal world which clear is not trying at all to contain any form of realism; although I have to say that all the stuff in the story about cars, in 1908 still very new, still seems valid today, dare I say it pushing part of this into the speculative fiction field– the idea of some idiot terrorising the countryside in the search for speed without care for their own life or anyone else’s whether it be human or hedgehog is something we have probably all experienced at some point. Unlike the world of Mr Toad though, consequences in our world can be a lot worse.