The advertised synopsis of ‘In The Willows’ left me and my friend rather dubious as we entered the Old Vic for its debut performance in Bristol. To be honest, I wasn’t really sold on the necessity of a family-friendly street-dance musical reimagining of the Kenneth Grahame novel, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and sat down for what we assumed would be a relatively fun evening of theatre. What we experienced was something colourful, joyous, uplifting ─ and effortlessly inclusive.
Metta Theatre have made their name recreating traditional stories with a modern twist, particularly focusing on developing new British musical theatre. Their interpretation of Jungle Book into a circus-like, dance-filled romp through an urban “jungle” won great critical acclaim, meaning the tour of this new performance was hotly anticipated. In the cast and crew there are incredible talents, not least Clive Rowe ─ yes, Duke from Tracy Beaker ─ the recipient of an Olivier Award and an MBE.
The story of Mole and her classmates at ‘The Willows’ (a rough school in a deprived region of a city largely similar to London) is told almost exclusively in song, opening with an eponymous number that is incorporated with gorgeously choreographed street dance and ranges from hip-hop to ballad. Victoria Boyce as Mole has an especially stand-out vocal ability which, in some of the more sombre songs of the performance, induces goosebumps. It’s of course no surprise that the street dance inspired choreography is flawless throughout, being put together by award-winner Rhimes Lecointe who intertwines dance within the storytelling so as to give the musical a touch of the physical theatre about it.
Although being a production suitable for children, In The Willows touches on many darker themes with tact and grace. The characters come from extremely poor backgrounds, some wrapped up in worlds of crime or living in hostels, while Mole deals throughout the play with the grief and guilt of her brother’s death; not shying away from such themes in what could’ve simply been a fun family musical is admirable and reflective of Metta Theatre’s “radical populism”. Even courageous enough to make a statement about the inequities of the penal system in the latter half, the political edge to this play was a pleasant surprise that did not feel shoehorned into the production as a whole.
What left the greatest impression on me was the incredible progressiveness of the whole performance from an inclusivity standpoint. In starring deaf street dancer Chris Fonseca, Metta show their dedication to keeping their company diverse and accessible ─ not only this, but they went above and beyond, incorporating sign language into parts of the narrative and having a live interpreter for the deaf otherwise. Furthermore, the cast was almost entirely BAME and even included a queer character; not that this was paraded around, in fact their use of “they/them” pronouns was so natural as to almost go unnoticed. This total acceptance of diversity and accessibility had a clear impact on the audience who, unprompted, used sign language applause as the actors bowed out. In this sense In The Willows achieved something really unique ─ it was a vision how progressive theatre could, and should, become.