An Auckland setting for an English story

By Dionne Christian

For a man planning an outdoor season of The Wind in the Willows in an Auckland spring, Tim Bray is remarkably sanguine.

"If there's torrential rain, we will not perform - and out of a two-week season we have budgeted for losing a couple of days to the weather," he says.

"But if it's just showers, we will go ahead because I think most Aucklanders know about the weather and are pretty much used to it. Besides, the base temperatures for this time of the year are a lot higher than normal."

Bray is trying what he believes may be a first for New Zealand, at least in recent years: outdoor performances of The Wind in the Willows, adapted from Kenneth Grahame's much-loved and quintessentially English children's story.

It was planned for Takapuna's PumpHouse Theatre, but a bookings clash meant the indoor theatre was occupied for the September/October school holidays.

But looking outside the PumpHouse, on the shores of Lake Pupuke, Bray realised the show could go on.

"It just made sense. There was the outdoor amphitheatre, a lake for boating and the Pumphouse lent itself perfectly for Toad Hall.

"Thinking about all that natural scenery, well, the adaptation wrote itself."

The story will start at the outdoor amphitheatre, and the audience will follow the action to the side of Lake Pupuke where Toad, Mole, Ratty, Otter and Badger will emerge from boats on the lake.

Wondering if anyone had done outdoor performances of The Wind in the Willows, Bray hopped online and discovered there are annual outdoor shows in London, and it has also been done in Australia.

"You think you've had a brave, new idea but it's been done before."

So he started thinking about how to make this version fresher but returned repeatedly to the reason he believes the story has endured - its gentle and mannered Englishness.

Rather than turning the animals into native New Zealand ones, he stuck with the traditional characters, emphasising their old-worldliness by giving them distinctive British accents and clothing them in colourful and dapper costumes. He describes it as "very jolly hockey sticks".

Bray acknowledges the five-strong cast faces a number of challenges, aside from the weather. Children are notoriously tough audiences who will comment loudly about the on-stage action, fidget if they are bored and become easily distracted.

But they are also extremely responsive as they have not yet learned the lessons about sitting still, keeping quiet and clapping politely.

Bray says it means playing things extra large and using costumes, accents and humour to capture and engage their young minds.

Given the distractions of the outside world, the actors must really play up.

"We have been rehearsing in a scout hall near a park so we have been able to go outside and confront the issue of how to avoid getting lost in the great outdoors. When you get out there, you realise just how big the big outdoors actually is."

Believing no child should miss the opportunity to enjoy theatre, a sign-language interpreter has been hired to translate the dialogue for deaf children.

What: The Wind in the Willows

Where: The PumpHouse, Killarney Park, Takapuna, Sep 26-Oct 8

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