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Return visits, different principals

Image: (C) Cameron Mackintosh Ltd

I noted on social media on my second visit to The Wind in The Willows, which has taken up a summer residency at the London Palladium, that certain shows are best enjoyed without my proverbial reviewer hat on. I wish I could say the same for all shows, but a) personal enjoyment is a matter of personal preference and b) just because a production isn’t to my personal taste, when the reviewer hat is on, if it’s a good production, it deserves to be credited accordingly if it’s got a lot going for it. The best example I can offer is Mamma Mia!, a show which has rightly been going strong in the West End since April 1999. I don’t listen to the music contained in it, and I couldn’t tell you who is in in the current cast, but it is a feel-good show with a credible storyline (for a musical, anyway).

The Wind in the Willows, which I quite happily gave four stars to, has been treated less favourably elsewhere, prompting Craig Mather, who plays the Mole, to tweet a comparison between press reviews for The Wind in the Willows and that of Les Miserables back in 1985. Is The Wind in the Willows the sort of show that will win over audiences even if critical appraisals have been mixed? I’m not so sure. Even on a Friday night and in a Palladium sort-of filled (it wasn’t quite a sell-out) with a considerable number of children, applause was measured and polite throughout. When one considers the source material, the creatives have done what they can with it in terms of adapting it for the stage. There’s an element of ‘if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise’, but the dangers in the Edwardian borderline utopia of the original novel are hardly the stuff of the Harry Potter series.

First time around I was treated to Chris Aukett playing Mr Toad, understudying for Rufus Hound. I rather preferred the former. Hound’s singing vocals are a little rough around the edges, accentuated by performing alongside the likes of Mather, Simon Lipkin’s Rat and Gary Wilmot’s Badger. No such differential in talent was to be found in Half A Sixpence over at the Noel Coward Theatre, which I wasn’t intending to return to quite so soon. I caught wind of the news that David Birch was to take on the role of Arthur Kipps for the first time, with superstar Charlie Stemp indisposed. There is, of course, no pleasure in hearing that Charlie Stemp isn’t taking to the stage for any other reason than pre-booked annual leave or a one-off performance elsewhere, and the response to his tour de force ‘triple threat’ has been nothing short of phenomenal.

What I hadn’t realised was that, having just reviewed a late afternoon show in Hackney that will go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month, I was dashing into Covent Garden on Pride in London weekend. This year is particularly significant for Pride participants, as it marks half a century since homosexuality was decriminalised in this country. I inadvertently photobombed a picture being taken by some Pride attendees, but in my defence the picture was taken very suddenly, in the middle of the pavement, with no attempt to veer off to one side to allow others to pass through. But the salient point here is that it wasn’t easy to get through such large crowds, and I only wish I had more time to appreciate the spirit of love, life and liberty that was very palpable in central London.

I plumped, after some consultation with the box office, for a front row seat in the Royal Circle. I won’t make a habit of this any time soon: it’s a great, great vantage point, but paying full box office price for a Saturday night performance is not something my bank balance can handle with any regularity. Having searched for the conveniences I found myself in the Dress Circle, through which I had to enter to reach the gents toilets. After I had done what was necessary (you need not know all the details), I sat down in the Dress Circle, and felt short-changed by the bars and railings in front of me. ‘Dress Circle’ usually is one level up, not two; what is known as the Dress Circle in the Noel Coward would, in most other theatres, be called the Upper Circle. Thus I had to make half a dozen people in the Dress Circle get up, while I relocated to the Royal Circle: but with still some minutes before the show was to start, and not everyone had filed in, at least I was spared the embarrassment of having someone telling me I was in their seat.

This not being an actual review, I make no apologies for the plethora of ‘spoilers’ that are about to follow. This particular performance was very much ‘Understudy Central’. Marcus Tilt (I think) was at the conductor’s podium, in place of Graham Hurman. Matthew Dale played Sid Pornick, in place of Alex Hope. Nick Butcher played Buggins, in place of Sam O’Rourke. Jaye Elster played Aunt Susan (and then later, Lady Dacre), in place of Annie Wensak. As Charlie and Alex were not on stage, and their understudies were somewhat shorter, this left Callum Train as Pierce looking taller than ever. This also made David Birch’s jumps from the bar during the second movement of ‘Money To Burn’ all the more remarkable.

Also, one of the lines from Vivien Parry’s Mrs Walsingham had, unusually, a double meaning. In her usual brusque manner, she tells her daughter Helen (Emma Williams, delightful and sublime as ever) that she is, at least, “rid of that frightful little man”. Kipps, whoever Kipps is played by, is only ‘frightful’ to the likes of Mrs Walsingham, for reasons apparent in the narrative, but this one was comparatively ‘little’, closer in stature to Tommy Steele than Charlie Stemp. For whatever reason, Birch thought it a good idea to pronounce the opening gambit of ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ as though it were just one word. “JustdowhathesaysIwantaproperphotographasamomento.”

Birch’s overall performance was closer to Steele’s than Stemp’s, even if any serious comparison between the 1967 motion picture and this reworked stage version is difficult because the two are so very different. It has been pointed out to me that Stemp’s Mr Kipps is such a polished and perfect performance that some of the edginess and rawness of the character that Steele brought to the role has been stripped out. Nonetheless, it’s an award-winning performance for a reason. Several, really – I won’t regurgitate them all here. As for Birch, he does it all with confidence: there’s a likeable and endearing air about him. He’s subtler than Stemp (but then, is it humanly possible to perform with more gusto and panache than Stemp?), and the vulnerability and good intentions of the shop assistant who suddenly comes into money are palpably evident.

The show is in very safe hands with Birch at the helm. The cast get behind David as much as they get behind Charlie. This is all academic and hypothetical as the production has posted closing notices, but if the show were to go into a second year in the West End, requiring a cast change, I’d be more than happy for David Birch to have stepped up to the plate full time. Whoever would have thought, with weeks to go, Half A Sixpence could still be uncovering previously unseen talent within its cast?

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