LAST night’s performance of Kenneth Grahame’s delightful classic The Wind in the Willows was quite unlike any version of the story I had seen or heard before.
Completely capturing the innocence of the original, this was a purely musical adaptation of Grahame’s book using traditional English folk melodies – some well-known, others less so – all set to new lyrics. It was an approach used by John Gay and Dr. Pepusch almost 300 years ago when they collaborated to produce The Beggar’s Opera.
They called their entertainment a ballad opera, with the familiar songs of the period alternating with passages of dialogue. In Chris Green’s folk opera however, there is no action or spoken dialogue whatsoever, the entire story being told in song. It was a remarkable achievement and one which largely worked.
The company of four was headed by Chris Green and Sophie Matthews, the former on guitar and the latter on a range of wind instruments, some familiar (flute and, I think, Northumbrian pipes) but with a few rarities thrown in, along with special guests Vicki Swan on an instrument that looked like a hurdy-gurdy but wasn’t because it had a bow and Jonny Dyer on accordion – at least I recognised that one. Such a diverse mix of traditional and modern instruments resulted in a terrific variety of instrumental tone colour which together with some gorgeous singing made for a real musical treat.
The songs, all taken from the vast treasury of English folk music, were a totally accessible mix of the lively and the more melancholic. One of my favourites, Lovely Joan (best known as the bit in the middle of Vaughan Williams Greensleeves Fantasia) made an appearance more than once, as did the haunting melody of The Sheep-Shearing Song, another favourite of mine, a traditional west-country song that Holst used so magically in the opening bars of his Somerset Rhapsody. It was particularly interesting to hear how such tunes took on a completely different feel when given different musical treatment – something the company made much use of in their re-telling of the story.
There were many melodies that I, somewhat frustratingly, could not identify however. I particularly liked the lively Poop-Poop song for example, which, accelerating throughout, finished at breakneck speed and the urgent instrumental accompaniment used for Toad’s train ride. But what the tunes were I have no idea.
Alongside constantly changing instrumental sound, the musicians made excellent use of their different singing voices with the melodies often being cleverly and seamlessly shared between them. One of the highlights though, was their straightforward rendition of Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning – the only a cappella song in the entire show, and, as such, a wonderful contrast to what had gone before.
Although there was no real action, there was certainly plenty of characterisation, and the company’s animated facial expressions added greatly to the enjoyment of the piece. However, it was the abundant evidence of musicianship that really kept me absorbed. It is such a joy to watch and of course listen to committed, consummate professionalism and the lovely singing and ensemble playing together with some very stylish musical arrangements was just about as professional as one could get.
Engaging though this show was though, I just wonder whether something more theatrical or visual might have given it a slightly broader appeal. It would make an absolutely magical accompaniment to a puppet show for example. As it stands, is it perhaps just a little bit too “cosy”?
Much as we appreciated the show in Dorchester, it was a very great pity that there was no programme. Details of the instruments together with the names of the folksongs used would have done so much to satisfy one’s curiosity. A synopsis of the story too would, for me at least, have been a godsend.
The voices and instruments, which were subtly amplified and inevitably given a hint of reverb to enhance the quality of the music, unfortunately resulted in many of the words being lost. I certainly had difficulty hearing them all – one of the joys of getting older I suppose. A rundown of the story would have enabled all of us to have latched on rather more easily and consequently would have been really useful.
The production is on tour for the rest of the month. For details see the website, www.greenmatthews.co.uk/shows/windinthewillows