Wilton’s Music Hall has become known for its Winter productions and this year is playing home to Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger in a world premiere of a modern-day adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. The adaptation has been written by Piers Torday who explains why the original means so much to him, and how The Wind in the Willows became The Wind in the Willows Wilton’s.
Wilton’s Music Hall is the oldest surviving music hall in Britain, in London’s East End. A venue of extraordinary history and atmosphere, where the creaking wooden floorboards and faded, peeling walls set the scene before the show has even begun. And for the past five years (sparing one missed for Covid) it’s been a privilege to adapt some extraordinary books for the stage there – from John Masefield’s entrancingly singular Box of Delights to this Christmas – when we hope to conjure the charm, joy and beauty of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – or rather, The Wind in the Willows Wilton’s…
I began the adaptation as I always do, reading the original text several times, highlighting the passages I believed diehard fans would be disappointed not to see in some form; whether it was Rat and Mole messing about in a boat or Toad on a racing spree. But then what works on the page must stay there, and it’s time to construct a fresh dramatic story inspired by the book that will hold both children and adults’ attention afresh on the stage.
It took, as it always does, a treatment, several drafts and a workshop to find, though. The book meanders around from season to season, subplot to subplot…we decided to build ours around two central strands from the book. One is the exquisitely rendered changing of the seasons on the river, which gave us our four acts, and the other is the shifting meaning of home for all the animals, from homebody Mole to wanderer Rat, hermit Badger to the playboy Toad – which gave them each their arc.
Alongside producer Holly Kendrick, executive director of Wilton’s, director Elizabeth Freestone, and designer Tom Piper, we agreed that we also did not want to indulge in pure nostalgia about an already nostalgic book. As the UK Environment Agency’s latest report revealed that 41% of our native flora and fauna species have considerably decreased since 1970, with 15% at serious risk of extinction – it felt imperative to touch on the genuine peril the real water rats, moles, toads and badgers of this country face. Yes, even in a feel-good Christmas show!
For such an iconic London venue, I also decided to relocate the action from the Berkshire stretch of the Thames downstream to the river as it runs through the capital. Wildlife in the city is often overlooked and ignored, but we have moles and badgers too! Our characters would be contemporary versions of the same immortal friendship group, with Mole making his home in a park and Toad living in a luxury riverside mansion. And ones who represent diverse modern London…just maybe with added fur and a tail or two.
The Wind in the Willows is one of the most enduring children’s books ever written – still in print since 1908, currently available in over fifty different editions, from picture books to pop up versions. Kenneth Grahame’s charming tale has instilled a love for British wildlife in generations of readers (including this one). It was foundational to my imaginative development, read to me by my parents at bedtime. The idea of such vulnerable mammals with such forthright characters, living out a permanent summer holiday existence was an appealing fantasy that spoke to me then and still does now – inspiring my own fiction.
Yet few animals in fiction are as far from nature as these picnicking, smoking, motor racing characters. The book breaks every rule of modern children’s literature – it is episodic, with no overarching plot, literally meandering in places, written in a quixotic blend of pastiche styles. And what child in their right mind wants to read a story where Rat tells Mole never to explore the Wide World, where Mole in turn dissuades Rat from foreign travel, and where Badger, Mole and Rat all intervene to stop Toad having adventures of any kind? Not so much middle grade as middle age!
So why is this eccentric, contradictory, dated book so often adapted?
One word: friendship. The shy, homebody Mole, brought out of his hole by the relentlessly chipper but perennially wistful Rat, the solitary, curmudgeon Badger with a heart of gold, and the appalling, careless, narcissist Toad who it is impossible not to feel affection for despite his reckless behaviour. Loosely inspired by Grahame’s own friends and family, this quartet seem to embody some of the most delightful and infuriating qualities of true friendship. That to me, is the central message of the book – nothing about picnics or motor cars – but rather that true friends stand by each other, through thick and thin, even when they drive each other up the wall (or into the river).
It’s these central dramatic relationships which makes Willows so suited to adaptation – despite the lack of a driving central narrative. A.A. Milne was the first to do the honours, Alan Bennett created a legendary version for the National Theatre in the 1990’s, and Julian Fellows recently turned the story into a musical. (Not to mention the TV series, the animations, the Disney ride…)
And as someone who spends most of their time locked in a study with a computer and their own thoughts, trying to be (like many novelists) director, set designer, lighting designer, composer and actors simultaneously, I feel liberated by stage adaptations. Like Mole emerging from his hole into bright spring sunshine, I am suddenly a bit freer and unburdened. Some fiction writers struggle with theatre because of what can present as a loss of control over the process – but I prefer to see it as a gaining of trust, with some unbelievably talented people.
What never fails to feel, truly magical is that in January, I can write anything I want on the page – from flying cars and golden phoenixes in Box of Delights to boats rowing down rivers and battles for Toad Hall – knowing that in just a few months, somehow – a brilliant combined effort of creatives and cast will have made them real. (But for a strictly limited seasonal period only!) I do hope you can join us on the river this Christmas.
24 November – 31 December at 7.30pm with matinees at 2.30pm on Tuesdays (from 06 Dec), Thursdays and Saturdays. Recommended for 5+ (Box Office: 02077022789).
Piers Torday is an award-winning author whose work has been translated into 14 languages and adapted for the stage. Books include The Last Wild trilogy, There May Be a Castle and The Lost Magician series. Plays include The Box of Delights and Christmas Carol (Wilton’s Music Hall). His latest book is The Wild Before.