THE value of watching a Christmas show in the company of young theatregoers must never be under-estimated.

Thus, I must thank the fabulously well behaved young students of Oakley C.E. Junior School who helped me to view this year’s Haymarket festive offering through a child’s eyes.

Richard Williams’ adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless tale begins with something subtle but wonderful – a summer breeze of fresh air blown magically into the theatre.

Accompanied by Stephen Holroyd’s accomplished lighting design and tweeting birds, you can easily imagine yourself along a riverbank, waiting to be introduced to Ratty (Neil Roberts), Mole (Martina Horrigan), Toad (Matthew Woodyatt) and Badger (Andy Rashleigh).

The simple tale introduces the first two characters before the key plot establishes itself – flash Toad, who is obsessed with motor cars, is targeted by the menacing Wild Wooders who bear an ancient grudge against his family.

David Collis’ stage design uses side panels and ‘blank canvas’ colours, waiting to be lit by bright sun, darkened into the scary Wild Wood, or converted into Toad’s imposing prison cell when he’s arrested for stealing a car.

Props-wise, Ratty’s pretty boat is designed as a folded up sheet of newspaper whilst Toad’s fantastic car really seems to run around the stage, in addition to boasting a superb horn. Toot toot!

It is heartening to see today’s children really getting stuck in to a traditional theatrical production such as this, which doesn’t rely on a dumbed-down script but rather puts its all behind the actors.

Even though I feared at the off that the memory of John Adams’ actual pond on stage a few years back would linger long, it was a delight to watch young faces turn en masse to see where the actors were pointing, so complete was their engagement in the action.

Credit must, of course, go to the fantastic four key actors. Adults will revel in the little details of each beautifully judged performance, from petite Martina’s curled hands through Ian’s slightly contemptuous gravitas to Neil’s debonair, deceptive charm as he entices Mole into doing everything.

Rebellious Toad, though, will remain the favourite of everyone who sees Wind in the Willows. As he bumbles around in a splendidly petulant manner, poking his tongue out with aplomb, Matthew Woodyatt is providing a comedy master class for us all.

From the flick of his foot when he tells you what a handsome toad he is, to a little stimulated yawn when someone’s daring to bore him, every little minute is worth watching and listening to, even when he’s muttering away as the Wild Wooders are attacking him. Just watch for his dramatics at the end of act one. Ian Harris, Joe Carey and

Jo Castleton also do sterling work in multiple roles, some of which require lightning speed costume changes, and the whole shebang would be nothing without their industrious contribution, and that of the feral Wooders.

This paean to the English countryside and one of the finest children’s books of all time is calming, classic and, yes, a little Christmassy too.

The Wind of the Willows runs until January 2. Tickets are available from the box office on 01256 844244 or online at