REVIEW (From A Distance): The Wind in The Willows (Guildford Shakespeare Company)

Twelve weeks into lockdown saw us clock up our second production of The Wind In the Willows. The first was the recording of the 2017 West End musical adaptation, which was one of the early entrants to the lockdown theatre party (back when people were frantically chucking archive recordings at the internet to keep people’s spirits up for what everyone hoped would be a few weeks). The second was an example of the way in which theatre has evolved over the last few months, with many companies turning to videoconferencing software to try and recreate the community feel of live theatre. And so last weekend saw us head to the Riverbank via Zoom.

Guildford Shakespeare Company first performed their adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in The Willows in 2015. After a successful series of Zoom murder mystery evenings, they decided to recreate their hit family production, combining forces with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre to bring the Riverbank to the living room (sponsored by Guildford Rocks and KGW Family Law). The result is an entertaining afternoon of messing about in boats, courtroom capers and battling badgers, all brought to life with green screen technology and a healthy dose of audience participation.

It’s a fun filled adaptation, which lovingly updates the classic story with some topical jokes (of which Mummy’s favourite was Toad attempting to excuse his motoring offences by claiming he needed to test his eyesight!) The difficulties of having a socially distanced cast are neatly overcome by setting the story in a courtroom, with each character taking it in turns to relate their side of the story from the witness stand, to enable the jury (us!) to determine whether there has been an unlawful breach of social distancing rules at Toad Hall. The courtroom setting also works well for the opening of the show, allowing the Judge (Chris Porter, who doubles up as Badger) to welcome individuals as they enter and check that everyone has got their Zoom court room set up properly before beginning proceedings. And, of course, the legal setting also enables a cheeky name check for sponsors, KGW Law.

It’s a very well done piece of Zoom theatre, which makes good use of the green screen technology to switch between the courtroom and the various other settings, as well as pulling off a highly amusing piece of socially distant fight choreography from fight director Philip D’Orleans. It’s slickly done, and performed brilliantly by the entire cast, who also have to grapple with constant character changes. The audience get involved on occasion, with different households flashing up on the screen waving improvised props. There is also a chance for everyone to cast their vote as jurors at the end. Although Mummy felt that Mole (Sally Cheng), Ratty (Robert Mountford) and friends had technically committed a breach of the social distancing laws, she was outnumbered by the munchkins and so our household returned a not guilty vote. This was echoed by the majority of the audience (although there was somehow a total of 104% votes cast!) and the not guilty verdict was duly delivered by the household nominated as foreman.

As ever, the munchkins loved the interactive elements, especially enjoying their moments in the spotlight when our living room was beamed live to everyone else. We’ve seen a few Zoom productions now and still find that there is something far more engaging about them than any other form of digital theatre. Although there was actually only a small amount of audience participation overall, there is just something about the fact that your camera is on that makes it more of a shared experience. Mummy also very much appreciated the trial setting and witty script. It turns out there’s nothing like a joke about social distancing to bring people together!

The Wind In The Willows played via Zoom on 6, 7 and 13 June 2020. We watched the 3pm show on 7 June.