‘Utterly Brummie’ take on The Wind In The Willows heads north to the wild wood of Stillington Mill for Silly Fringe shows

Paperback Theatre’s Mole (Charis McRoberts), left, Toad (Nathan Blyth), Rat (Carys Jones) and Badger (Lucy Bird) in their 2022 tour of The Wind In The Willows

PAPERBACK Theatre’s debut national tour of their “utterly Brummie” The Wind In The Willows will conclude with two Theatre At The Mill performances on July 30 at Stillington, near York.

On the road since June 4, the Birmingham company’s charming outdoor production will be heading to North Yorkshire for its only northern shows, directed by company co-founder Lucy Bird on her return to her roots.

Adapted for the stage from Kenneth Grahame’s book by fellow co-founder George Attwell Gerhards, Toad’s tale played to sell-out audiences at Paperback’s own arts festival, Little But LIVE! 2021, and in the Assembly Festival Gardens at Coventry City of Culture 2021 with Attwell Gerhards playing the irrepressible Toad.

Now Nathan Blyth is pooping Toad’s car horn on the tour, alongside Lucy Bird’s Badger, Charis McRoberts’ Mole and Carys Jones’s Rat.

Introducing the play, Lucy says: “Mole has been stuck inside for far too long. Finally escaping their underground home, they team up with good friends Ratty, Badger and the loveably roguish Toad on an adventure to blow away the quarantine cobwebs.

“Mole and the gang must go head-to-head with a motor car, Her Majesty’s Constabulary and, the greatest challenge of all, a legion of Weasels, Ferrets and Stoats, who have taken up residence in Toad Hall. Can our plucky band of heroes save the day?”

Lucy Bird: Director and Badger

Here, Lucy answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on Toad and co, the company name and why Paperback Theatre are coming to Stillington.

Why call the company Paperback Theatre, Lucy? 

“As a company, we’re most interested in adaptations. Taking old stories and retelling them for a new age, re-examining them, or just bringing them back to life for modern audiences (as we do with The Wind In The Willows).

“The name Paperback relates to the idea of a well-worn paperback book that has been read again and again, with a bent spine and crinkled pages, because there’s something that keeps drawing us back to those stories.” 

What drew you to staging The Wind In The Willows?

“Pre-pandemic, Paperback made more indoor shows for older audiences, but during the pandemic we pivoted to working outdoors, for Covid safety reasons, and even started producing our own outdoor festival, Little But LIVE!.

“We found that outdoor work attracted more family audiences, and when we came to programming our second version of the festival The Wind In the Willows was touted as the perfect show for an outdoor family festival.

“Moreover, we were interested in the parallels in the tale to hibernation/isolation and our national journey out of lockdown. That said, The Wind In The Willows has always been thrown around our artistic discussions; it’s a book I loved as a child.”

Paperback Theatre take to the great outdoors in their debut national tour

What are your first memories of the story?

“My parents only had a VHS player and no TV licence, and one of the only video sets we had was the stop-motion series from back in the ’80s. Me and my brother watched it on repeat and routinely staged our own productions of it with other children in the village. 

“I’ve run with that memory a fair amount in our staging and tried to create a low-tech, playful production that children could go away and stage themselves if they wanted to. We have sock puppets for ferrets, coconuts for horses’ hooves and a great medley of kazoos to manage our sound effects.”

Outdoor story equals perfect show for performances in the great outdoors. Discuss…

“I think there’s a lot of truth to that; it makes locating the story easier. When we arrive at each venue on tour, we have to agree where the Wild Wood is, where Toad Hall is, or the Riverbank, so we know where to point when we refer to them.

“Normally there’s a copse of trees – or indeed quite often a manor house looming in the distance that we can locate – which brings an extra exciting energy to the show.

“The Wind In The Willows is also a story about exploration and connecting with your local habitats after a long time away from them, so if you’re telling it outside, it feels like a great way to get audiences to start that journey of reconnection themselves. 

“That said, I love the challenge of telling an indoor story outside: the harder you and the audience have to work to commit to imagining that you are in the middle of a palace, or a church, when you are in the pelting rain or blistering sun, the more fun you can have, I think.”

Paperback Theatre co-founder George Attwell Gerhards, who adapted Kenneth Grahame’s book for the stage, is pictured playing Toad in the 2021 production

What is distinctive about George’s adaptation?

“What’s different about this production to others I’ve seen is, firstly, its pace. George has compressed this well-loved tale into just an hour and, as a result, it has a really fast-paced, fluid energy to it, which also informs the great comedy and slapstick that we’ve discovered in the show.

“What’s particularly impressive and interesting is how much of the script has come straight from the book – which I think is really engaging for older audience members who may have a feeling of nostalgia for the original text – and yet how fresh and engaging it is for younger audiences.”

How do you involve the audience in the show?

“It’s an interactive show in the sense that we’re constantly talking directly to the audience, or pretending that they’re different characters in the show, but in a gentle way; we never get anyone up on stage or make them act out.

“We invite audiences to join in on our discoveries, to clap and cheer when the characters win something, or to groan in sympathy when we’re a bit sad. But if they aren’t feeling it that day, we just carry on…though we’ve yet to experience that!” 

Paperback Theatre use recycled materials and bits of rubbish – sock puppets et al – in their design and props for The Wind In The Willows

What is the message of The Wind In The Willows in 2022?

“There’s a message about valuing nature and the countryside. Mainly though, given the last few years, for us it’s about friendship and camaraderie in difficult times, about reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in a while and helping them through the fun times and the tough times.”  

What does an “utterly Brummie” interpretation bring to the show? 

“Accents, mainly! Our Rat and Toad are both from Birmingham originally so they play the characters with their home accents, and then we bring in a plethora of other ones to help distinguish our multi-rolling, also to reflect the diversity of a city like Birmingham.

“There are a few unique references to the city, like bits of dialect or items of costume that are specific to our local area (Rat has a Moseley Folk Festival T-shirt on). 

“Also, because the show was originally made for urban audiences, we’re looking at what urban wildlife is like. Our costumes and set are constructed out of recycled materials or bits of rubbish that we think the animals could have found hanging around to build their homes.

“I guess that also feeds into a message in our production of ecology and preserving the environment.” 

Bird transforms into Badger: Lucy at play in the natural world

You are playing Badger, but is Badger your favourite character?  If not, who is?!!

“Ooo, tricky! I do love Badger and their fieriness! But I think I’m coming round most to Rat. Bit of a curveball but they seem like an animal who’s just trying to be kind and do the right thing, even though they sometimes get it wrong, and I can empathise with that.” 

Finally, Lucy, how did the performances at At The Mill come about?

“I’m actually from North Yorkshire originally, just across the way from Stillington in Ampleforth. When we first started booking The Wind In The Willows on tour I was absolutely determined to book a show near to the home I grew up in.

“My journey into theatre very much started with going to see outdoor performances that were touring to the local area, and I was really keen to try and offer that to the children and families who are living there now. 

“I’d heard of Stillington Mill through family friends who said they had seen a few things there that were great and they felt it was a fab new venue, so I dropped the organisers, Alex [Flanagan Wright] and Megan [Drury], a line and they booked us in.”

Theatre At The Mill’s Silly Fringe presents Paperback Theatre in The Wind In The Willows at Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York, on July 30, 2.30pm and 7pm. Box office: atthemill.org/summer-at-the-mill/  

Paperback Theatre’s tour poster for The Wind In The Willows

Paperback Theatre’s back story

* Formed at University of Warwick by Lucy Bird and George Attwell Gerhards, on the cusp of graduation in 2016. Now based in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. 

* Past work includes thought-provoking original plays We Need to Talk About Bobby (Off EastEnders) and Me And My Doll, plus innovative adaptations of classics.

* In 2020, in response to Covid-19, they set up open-air arts festival called Little But LIVE! in Moseley Park, Birmingham, to give performing platform to Midlands artists who had lost work and to bring community together in period of isolation. Event now produced annually, entering third year in 2022.

* Debut tour of The Wind In The Willows is taking in Birmingham, Northampton, Lichfield, Stafford and Suffolk before Stillington finale.

Did you know?

LUCY Bird hails from the prodigiously artistic Bird family from Ampleforth. Brother Henry is an actor and musician; brother Conrad fronts the Newcastle band Holy Moly & The Crackers.

NE Musicals York’s biggest cast heads to the wild wood for The Wind In The Willows

Lee Harris’s Mr Toad leaps in the air during a rehearsal for NE Musicals York’s The Wind In The Willows The Musical

NE Musicals York take over the Joseph Rowntree Theatre from Sunday to transform the theatre into a riverbank and wild wood for the York premiere of The Wind In The Willows The Musical.

Director Steve Tearle has created the design for the April 27 to May 1 run of the hit book adaptation by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and creator of Downton Abbey, with songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the Olivier award-winning lyricist-and-composer partnership.

Rehearsals are into the final week for Tearle’s staging of Kenneth Grahame’s story of Ratty, Mole, Badger and the impulsive Mr Toad, whose insatiable need for speed lands him in serious bother.

NE Musicals York in an early publicity shot for their York premiere of Wind In The Willows The Musical

When his beloved home comes under threat from the notorious Chief Weasel and his gang of sinister Wild Wooders, Mr Toad must attempt a daring escape, leading to a series of misadventures and a heroic battle to recapture Toad Hall.

“This family musical packed with thrills, comedy and a massive heart is racing into York for the very first time with exuberant choreography by Ellie Roberts and a beautiful, exciting British score brought to life by musical director Sam Johnson,” says Steve. “Look out for the costumes: they’ve been created by NE Musicals too.”

Tearle’s largest-ever cast is led by Lee Harris as Mr Toad, Finlay Butler as Ratty, Tom Henshaw as Badger and Jack Hambleton as Mole. Sam Richardson plays Chief Weasel; Tearle himself will be Kenneth Grahame and the Magistrate.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees are on sale on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Director Steve Tearle (centre, back, by a pillar, in a hat) watches Lee Harris, front, and company members in a rehearsal for NE Musicals’ premiere

NE Musicals York’s big cast to start The Wind In The Willows rehearsals on Feb 17

NE Musicals York’s poster for this spring’s production of The Wind In The Willows, The Musical

THE cast is in place for rehearsals to start on February 17 for NE Musicals York’s spring production of The Wind In The Willows, The Musical.

“Yes, we have one of our strongest and largest casts for the most amazing show; a musical by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe and Julian Fellowes that’s brand new to York,” says director Steve Tearle. “It’s an hilarious adventure, a great musical for the whole family.”

Based on Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, The Wind In The Willows, The Musical is a wild, thrill-seeking tale with a book by Oscar-winning screenwriter and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and songs by Olivier Award-winning composer-and-lyricist duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

This riotous comedy follows Mole, Rat, Badger and the impulsive Mr Toad, whose insatiable need for speed lands him in serious trouble.

When his beloved home comes under threat from the notorious Chief Weasel and his gang of sinister Wild Wooders, Mr Toad must attempt a daring escape, leading to a series of misadventures and a heroic battle to recapture Toad Hall.

“Full of humour and wit, with a gorgeous, soaring score and heart-warming lessons of friendship, The Wind In The Willows is the perfect fit for family audiences everywhere,” says Steve.

Tearle’s production will run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from April 27 to May 1 with a cast led by Lee Harris as Mr Toad; Finlay Butler as Ratty; Tom Henshaw as Badger and Jack Hambleton as Mole. Hambleton was last seen as teenage diarist Adrian Mole in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical production of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last month.

Sam Richardson will play Chief Weasel; Steve Tearle, Kenneth Grahame and Magistrate; Neve Greenley, Julian ‘Mouse’ Grahame; Libby Anderson, Portia; Perri Ann Barley, Mrs Otter; Ellie Roberts, Lesser Weasel/Olivia Otter, and Kristian Barley, Horse/Scared Weasel.

Maia Stroud has been cast as Sheryl Stoat; Becky Warboys, Mrs Hedgehog; Paul Jefferson, Mr Hedgehog; Carolyn Jensen, Henrietta Horse/Sheila Stoat; Pat Mortimer, Barge Woman/Fiona Fox; Millie Warboys, Shelly Squirrel/Gaoler’s Daughter, and Erin Greenley, Scarlett Squirrel/Engine Driver.

Henry Barker will be Stephano Squirrel/Engine Driver Assistant; Scott Kendrew, policeman Shaun Squirrel/Car Driver; Toby Jensen, policeman Sam Squirrel/Rob Rabbit; George D Moore, prison guard Freddie Fox; Elizabeth Farrell, Serena Swallow/Opal Otter, and Roxy Hurst, SoSo Swallow/Odessa Otter.

Evie Latham will play Skye Swallow/Octavia Otter; Suraya Pickersgill, Harriet Hedgehog; Ishbel Nicholson, Hannah Hedgehog; Callum Richardson, Rabbit Butler; Sam Reed, Michael Fieldmouse/Richard Rabbit; Jack Reed, Josh Fieldmouse/Robert Rabbit, and Scarlett Waugh, Abbie Fieldmouse/Rebecca Rabbit.

Zachary Pickersgill’s roles will be Ben Fieldmouse/Rich Rabbit; Molly Pashley, Molly Fieldmouse/Rosie Rabbit; Missy Barnes, Missy Fieldmouse/Ruth Rabbit; Aimee Dean-Hamilton, Maisie Mouse; Darcy Powell, Monica Fieldmouse; Elenor Powell, Matilda Mouse; Rosie Musk, Faith Fox/Oval Otter; Julie Blackburn, Grandma Fieldmouse, and Katie Ann Thackeray, Felicity Fox.

Eve Parker has been cast as Fern Fox; Freya-Mai Bayley, Faye Fox; Tracy Hurst, Fran Fox; Megan Snelgrove, Wren Weasel; Freya Chilvers, Winni Weasel; Maia Smith, Ce Ce Swallow/Willow Weasel; LaCie Martin, Willowlow Weasel; Sophie Dean-Hamilton, Sophie Stoat; Sophia Cocker, Sylvia Stoat/Olive Otter; Beth Clavery, Stefani Stoat; Lucy Leaf, Shona Stoat, and Kalayna Barley, Sally Stoat.

Ali Butler Hind will be Sara Stoat; Matthew Musk, Matt Fieldmouse/Brian Rabbit; Abigail Ainley, Fifi Fox; Lexi Brooks, Mango Fieldmouse; Charlotte Smith, Shelby Stoat; Dylan Probert, Reginald Rabbit; Mae Bradley, Stella Stoat; Charlotte Bowman, Flame Fox; Holly Walker, Felicia Fox; Maia Baker, Wendy Weasel; Harry Wright, Will Weasel, and Emily Hagyard, Rascal Weasel.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening performances and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees are on sale on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.