"Intelligence, exuberance, diversity and inclusivity"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 01/03/19

Metta Theatre start their 2019 tour of the astonishingly good hip-hop musical ‘In the Willows’ at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. Poppy Burton Morgan’s inventive, witty and wise adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic ‘Wind in the Willows’ is a triumph, brought to life by lead performers bursting with talent, supported by a well-disciplined, enthusiastic community chorus; a creative team to die for and an excellent crew. I fear I could run out of superlatives. The onstage energy inspired, delighted and excited a diverse audience of all ages.

Grahame’s well-loved characters are transported to a tough, urban school, The Willows, with pupils whose behaviour, to use the tired euphemism, is as challenging as their circumstances. Dedicated teacher, Badger (Clive Rowe of ‘Tracy Beaker’) holds his class together with tough love and, well, soft love. Cocky, endearing Toad, (Harry Jardine); clever, passionate, mostly-kind, ambitious Rattie (Zara MacIntosh) and Chris Fonseca’s gentle Otter, (communicating eloquently using British Sign Language), all play a part in reaching out to new pupil, Mole (Victoria Boyce/of the sublime voice!). But Mole is burdened with shame and guilt, and her loneliness is a barrier to friendship. Her classmates Owl (Abiola Efunshile), Duck (Seann Miley Moore), Bitchy Rabbit (Katherine Picar) and Twitchy Rabbit (Treasure Iyamu) push her unwillingly into the spotlight during a dance-off. Out of her depth, drowning in fear (beautifully staged), she flees, increasing her isolation. Mole’s woes are intensified because Chief Weasel, Matt Knight, knows her terrible secret, and uses it to lever her into betraying Toad.

Vast and timeless themes underpin the show. Shame. Guilt. Loneliness. Secrets. Betrayal. Atonement. Forgiveness. Redemption. The agony we feel, especially when young, as we stumble to become ourselves. Each character’s life could be a compelling show in itself. Will Rattie go to Uni, or will her fear of losing touch with her community keep her from flying? Will her and Otter’s love survive if she studies away from home? Will Toad follow in his feckless father’s footsteps and settle for an easy life of crime? Is there any hope for Weasel? Will Mole ever belong?

However much the audience is encouraged to think deeply, we are also royally entertained, with believable, diverse characters dancing up a storm, guided by choreographer Rhimes Lecointe, whilst singing memorable songs with pin-sharp lyrics composed by musicians Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick. William Reynold’s versatile, inventive, beautifully lit set serves the dancers well, and Ryan Dawson Laight’s costumes are a joy to behold, from flamboyant Toad to sinister Weasel to sensationally spectacular sunshine-yellow Duck.

This is a stunning, inspiring show. Its intelligence, exuberance, diversity and inclusivity are the best antidotes to a current political climate which is sadly lacking in those attributes. Those of us no longer young owe it to the coming generations to create a society where we can all celebrate their talents, nurture their hopes and help them realise their dreams. Thank you, Metta Theatre, for the timely reminder.

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