Will In The Willows ruin a classic novel?

I think, for me anyway, the answer is probably yes.

A musical version of Kenneth Grahame’s well-loved tale sounds quite good, but when you throw in music and hip-hop and seem to change the underlying plot I get a little wary.

Here’s the show’s description: Mole’s first day in The Willows. The kids look a bit rough. Surely Mr Badger will look out for her, while hip-hop cool girl Rattie, rich kid rapper Toad and street-dancing Otter teach her the ways of the Riverbank. But when Toad gets locked up for joyriding, the Weasel Clan break in and squat his pad, the Pool Hall. Now it’s only a matter of time before Chief Weasel reveals Mole’s dark secret.

Is it going to be a cringey ‘actors trying to look all cool and tough?’ Place your bets. I say this, but the cast are absolutely incredible. The cast is led by Olivier Award winner Clive Rowe who is best known for his role in Guys and Dolls and as Norman ‘Duke’ Elllington in BBC Children’s drama The Story of Tracy Beaker. Deaf street dancer Chris Fonseca (The Greatest Dancer) and Seann Miley Moore (The X Factor) are also in the cast, genuinely proving the show’s dedication to be accessible and diverse and celebrate these diversities.

Clive Rowe said: “From the moment I was first introduced to In the Willows I knew it was something I had to be a part of – a classic piece of British theatre given the voice and unquenchable energy of the modern generation.”

Whilst I enjoyed Metta Theatre’s production of Little Mermaid last year, it confused me with its empowering yet ill-thought-out moral messaging and I fear this production will be the same.

Metta’s Artistic Director Poppy Burton-Morgan said: “Representation is at the heart of our storytelling, so we’re thrilled to develop that further in In the Willows – integrating BSL into the choreography and providing a platform for the extraordinary Chris Fonseca, a deaf street dancer who plays Otter. The show is full of trans-positive and body positive role models and we hope that in seeing themselves reflected on stage we’re empowering our audiences as we entertain them.”

Unfortunately with such bold statements, every single decision has to be meticulously thought out, not just a bit of a moral speech chucked into a script to tick a box. Hopefully this production will lead the way and become a great example of diverse and celebratory theatre, where diversity is naturally included in the production without being made a deliberate feature – “normalising” accessible theatre is an absolute must, and I’d love to live in a world where all shows are entirely accessible for both audience members and creatives wishing to perform professionally.

In the Willows is produced by Metta Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre, supported by the Arts Council. The show opens today at York Theatre Royal and runs until 20th April.

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