The Figs in Wigs are back at the Cambridge Junction, but this time they’re bringing mirth and mischief to young and old alike with their adaptation of The Wind in the Willows.
Each year, Cambridge Junction commissions the production of an innovative Christmas show for the whole family as an alternative to traditional pantomime. This festive season, London-based performance group Figs in Wigs present their take on Kenneth Graeme’s beloved children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows (1908), not to be confused with Julian Fellowes’ musical adaptation of the same.
Figs in Wigs, a female ensemble cast of five and the self-acclaimed “lowbrow answer to avant-garde”, understand themselves as ‘uncategorisable’: ‘We’re not funny enough to be in comedy, we’re not serious enough to be in theatre, we can’t dance well enough to be dancers, and we’re too funny to be in performance art, we’re basically Sharon Osborne impressionists.’
Still, their unconventional performances work and to date, they have performed a variety of shows and live pieces to critical acclaim. That they have been commissioned to do this year’s Junction Christmas show, their first one for children, comes a bit out of the blue. How will the group tailor their signature dance moves, bad jokes, and pop culture references to a young audience of 5+ (and their adults)? Will they include their topics of interest such as sexual identity, gender inequality, discrimination, social media, or climate change in this adaptation, or even attempt another world record as in Dance Peas, which partly comprised of attempting to break the world record for the most eaten peas with a cocktail stick within three minutes. In one way they are perfectly equipped to take on the challenge of a traditional pantomime and that is the participatory aspect of their previous shows.
The ensemble chose The Wind in the Willows for their Christmas show because of its underlying topic of friendship, which mirrors their own approach to performance art. Without a producer or director per se, the five women make all decisions regarding the show together, thus ensuring that their five characters get an equal amount of stage time; in short, everyone has their own special moment. This rather unconventional but refreshing approach is also found in their adapted storyline. If you are a fan of Graeme’s original plot about a group of anthropomorphised animals and are expecting to see them “simply messing about in boats”, you might be in for a surprise. Both temporally and geographically, Figs in Wigs’ adaptation diverges from the novel and begins one year after the weasels occupied Toad’s (Sarah Moore) house. Ratty (Rachel Porter), Mole (Alice Roots), and Badger (Suzanna Hurst) just want to enjoy their quiet life by the river, but Toad has other plans. She (yes, we have a group of female animals now) has gotten over her previous obsession with motorcars but only to fancy another vehicle: the rocket. Rash and improvident as ever, her plan involves going all the way to space in it. Her friends believe this to be anything but a good idea and, upon hearing of this, mischievous Weasel (Rachel Gammon) has other plans.
Having the novel as it’s starting point, the beginning of the show pays homage to the beloved classic, particularly through Tim Spooner’s set design: in front of a forest scenery, green elements dominate (the colour seems to be somewhat of a signature for Figs in Wigs); Mole and Ratty take a short trip in a small rowing boat; a picnic on the jetty comes with such delicacies as flies-on-toast. The oversized props are charming and draw attention to the anthropomorphised animals. At least for now, they are not wearing clothes but only their fur (suits, all in the same design by Spooner again). In comparison to some of the other props and parts of the set, the costumes are rather drab and boring, and could have profited from some extravagant accessories or colours, in line with Figs in Wigs’ usual attire. Although not always consistent in size relative to the small animals, the props and set fall more in line with the group’s oeuvre. Especially Toad’s rocket made from what appears to be an abundance of aluminium foil, foil pans, and more aluminium foil. Sometimes the set appears a bit too large and distracting, but for a young audience this is exactly right, with little details such as planets creating a nice backdrop for the space scenes.
The adaptation makes a number of direct references to the events in Graeme’s story, for example Toad’s jail time, while also taking their own turns on the characters. Regarding the pantomime, however, their reliance on too many conventional notions such as musical numbers, slapstick, dancing, and audience participation including the almost obligatory ‘Oh, yes it is!’/‘Oh, no it isn’t’ make this adaptation less intriguing and innovative than it could have been. The ‘alternative’ element is primarily in the source material and their modern take on it. The element of cross-dressing loses its appeal as the male animals from the novel are all presented as female here and addressed as such. The assumptions of the children’s knowledge and contributions likely make for an entertaining experience for the young audience, but appear too traditional, and sometimes too unoriginal, especially considering Figs in Wigs’ more outlandish work. I would have expected an even more daring adaptation from them: for example questioning the medium they take on and including more of their signature style of dance moves etc. Figs in Wigs’ unique and quintessentially innovative performance style does not always come through in their take on a children’s classic. They play it mostly safe and it would have been interesting to see what they could have made if they had taken more liberties performance-wise.
One prop and scene in particular stood out for me, maybe because it more explicitly addressed the adults in the audience. The oversized iPhone, consisting of what appeared to be a large screen, is an original contribution to the show, appealing both to the young, technology-affine audience and their older companions. Through the help of creative paper animations brought to life by Matthew Robbins, Toad’s friends facetime the who-is-who of the animal kingdom, a scene full of pop culture references in good Figs manner and intriguing voice-overs. Although pantomime traditionally makes no reference to Christmas, the show here also introduces some festive imagery without ever explicitly mentioning Christmas. Whether appreciated by pantomime lovers or not, it brings a new dynamic to the show.
Figs in Wigs’ The Wind in the Willows is a diverting adaptation of a beloved children’s classic which, although partly lacking the groups’ signature style, makes for good family entertainment.
Figs in Wigs’ The Wind in the Willows will end its four week run at the Cambridge Junction on January 5th 2020, including a BSL interpreted show on 22nd December and one relaxed performance on the 29th. Find more information and purchase tickets here.