They are a timid lot, the creatures in Trina Haldar’s staging of The Wind in the Willows. They tread cautiously, moving only when safe, always alert to danger. When Ratty (Isobel Witcomb) offers her hand in friendship, Mole (Charlotte Dowding) sniffs it rather than shakes it. Deciding there is no threat, she turns and displays her backside – cue much merriment in the auditorium.
Their nervousness is justified. Danger is everywhere. Should they stray into the wild woods, dark and spooky behind the greens and russets of Nettie Scriven’s set? There they will have weasels, ferrets and stoats to contend with. Anywhere beyond their territory, there will be human beings.
The exploits of Toad (John Holt Roberts), with his caravans, motorboats and fast cars, seem less like the amusing antics of a bumptious toff than the recklessness of someone who will get them all killed. No wonder the rustling of the willows sounds so ominous.
Toby Hulse’s adaptation, revived after a post-lockdown run in a city-centre marquee, takes Kenneth Grahame seriously. Versions of his children’s classic usually give the characters a cartoonish swagger, but these animals are subtly drawn, their temperament and mannerisms based on nature.
Although Toad provides excitement when he makes off in his car in defiance of the morose Badger (Ivan Stott), he is portrayed not as a lively libertarian but more as a constant problem for Ratty and Mole, whose survival he jeopardises.
When temptation comes – as it does in the form of a castanet-clicking Black Rat (Inés Sampaio) luring Ratty into the outside world – caution wins the day. Friendship and solidarity offer more enduring protection than the selfishness of going it alone.
None of which is to suggest this is a cautious production. Haldar holds the attention not only by honouring the story, but also by filling it with music and action. The score, by Stott, is all skiffle rhythms and pop harmonies (Toad’s opening song includes a hip-hop interlude and a reference to Blur’s Country House), while the theatre’s young company add colour as birds, ducks and warring rodents. But for all the thrills, it is the sweet friendship of Ratty and Mole that triumphs.