Thursday, 4 February 2021

REVIEW: Studio Cast Ep of 'In the Willows'

In 2019 the new musical In the Willows toured a dozen or so UK Venues to good reviews and although I missed the tour, I was delighted to hear the new six track EP that has just been released featuring some of the touring cast including one of my favourite musical comedy actors Clive Rowe as Badger. Written by P Burton- Morgan with music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary (who also wrote the musical version of The Secret diary of Adrian Mole) and composer Kieran Merrick, it is a modern energetic tale based on the Kenneth Grahame’s famous novel but transposing the characters to a British comprehensive school, The Willows, and the surrounding area. It gives the story a fresh real life setting and challenges a young audience to find their own voice and be open about who they are and their past. It is not to be confused with Julian Fellows Wind in the Willows Musical which is a more traditional retelling of the original stories.

Of course, on a six track EP the full story is hidden, and the characters hinted at rather than fleshed out, but it whets your appetite to see the full show when it next tours or transfers into the West End. No doubt during lockdown many new musicals have been developed and will be seeking finance to be fully staged but this one is surely ahead of the queue having already toured smaller UK venues and the EP shines a light on the exciting and distinctive musical style which seems to borrow from Hamilton and Six, two of the most recent West End stage successes.

Easy life is the catchy opening number as the anxious Mole (sung by Hiba Elchikhe) arrives at school for her first day and meets a confident Toad (Harry Jardine who toured with the show). It is a Hamilton style rap with lyrics about a “macaroni cheesy life” and a “dad doing time”. It is cheeky and fun with an infectious chorus.

Between you and me finds Mole with Rattie (played by Sharon Rose) discussing you tube tutorials with a delightful horns section and melodic girl band feel. Walk into the fire finds Mole recalling the death of her brother in a Six-ish pop ballad. The fourth track is Animal which introduces us to the “animal underclass” who have to “be strong to survive” lead by Chief Weasel (sung by Kieran Merrick) in a threatening Garage style rap.

Head above water is more hopeful and uplifting as Mole is advised by a variety of characters including Rattie and Toad to “keep swimming” and let your “body do the talking” with Tim Mahendran as Otter. They have also released a very effective video of the song featuring deaf dancer Chris Fonseca who played Otter on the tour.

The final song is Oh Child, a soulful song perfectly suited for the wonderful Clive Rowe as Badger, here a teacher at the school, as he tells Mole to “not blame herself for her brother’s death” and to “start living again”.

This EP demonstrates the mix of musical styles in the show with melodic and soulful tunes as well as the rapped through ones where the words are spoken over the beat. It hints at the ambition of the producers Metta Theatre to produce new musical theatre with disability and deaf integration and inclusion, diverse characters, and re-gendering protagonists to create more female roles. Having listened to the 18-minute six track recording I will definitely be looking out for the shows next tour.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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