21 December 2018

‘Hamilton meets Matilda’ – how Metta is pushing the boundaries of musical theatre

Metta Theatre’s extraordinary new hip-hop musical In the Willows opens at the Northcott in February.

With epic show tunes and killer beats, this much-loved Edwardian tale has been brought popping and locking into the twenty first century, with fast bikes, fierce moves and fabulous vocals.

The show is the third in a trilogy by the Northcott associate company and follows the smash hit street-dance Jungle Book and circus-musical Little Mermaid.

The rural Edwardian idyll of Kenneth Graeme’s The Wind in the Willows has been updated and the action transposed to a contemporary urban state school.

Metta’s artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan explains the thinking behind the show and how the company is trying to push the boundaries of musical theatre.

“For those who saw our hip hop Jungle Book in 2016, or our circus musical Little Mermaid in 2018, the combination of Wind in the Willows, hip hop and musical theatre will come as no surprise,” she adds.

“In a way it’s the third in a trilogy of classic family titles, reimagined through a cross art-form interdisciplinary approach. The thing about these stories that keeps us coming back is that essentially all three trade in archetypes – the lost child (Mowgli in Jungle Book, Mole in Willows), the mentor (Baloo in Jungle Book, Badger in Willows), the antagonist/villain (Shere Khan in Jungle Book, Seawitch in Mermaid, Chief Weasel in Willows) and the clown (monkeys in Jungle Book, Toad in Willows). Archetypes are the engine of all classic stories and it’s their universality that allow us to reimagine these narratives in wildly different realities to those created by their original authors.

“With Willows we have transposed the action to a contemporary urban state school ‘The Willows’ in which our well loved friends Rattie, Toad, Otter, Duck and the rabbits become a bunch of disaffected teenagers and Badger their put upon teacher. Under Badger’s watchful eye they spend their days learning the ways of the woods, and their nights cutting loose in the Riverbank nightclub where Rattie is  MC and Toad guest DJ. Meanwhile they do their best to avoid the Weasels – a criminal gang who terrorise the Wild Woods Estate. Into this grubby yet vibrant world steps quiet new girl Mole – desperate to make friends in this alien environment but with secrets of her own hidden beneath her tattered hood (as ever we’ve re-gendered many of the characters to better represent and simultaneously subvert gender tropes on stage).

Little Mermaid, Metta Theatre. Photo by Robert Day
Little Mermaid, Metta Theatre. Photo by Robert Day

“As with Jungle Book – also transposed to a recognisably human and contemporary urban world – the choice to locate these characters in this new reality gives us the opportunity to engage with the politics and problems facing young people today. The struggle to move beyond a very narrowly defined future – to dream big – to make friends – to carve out your own identity in an increasingly codified world. All are problems we can both recognise from our own school days and see challenging our children.

“Hip hop felt a natural choice to give voice to these fiery, inquisitive, politically engaged young people – the power of the beat and the gunfire rhythms of the Lyrics expressing the anger of a generation both excluded from society and yet fired up to change it. But it’s not all politics – just as Jungle Book and Mermaid were meticulously faithful to the original plots so too Willows follows the same classic adventure, just a little… re-mixed. Mole learns to ‘row the boat’ at The Riverbank nightclub (‘row the boat’ is a dance move) while they’re ‘messing about with beats’.

“Mole and Rattie end up lost in the snow as per the original, and while recovering in Badger’s flat they hear the dulcet tones of Carol singers in a gospel mash up of In The Bleak midwinter. Toad is put in detention instead of being locked in his room and escapes to steal a motorbike (a car in the original). His subsequent arrest and prison break is orchestrated by hiding inside a washing machine (in place of a washer woman disguise). The battle for Toad Hall (a snooker Hall) between the Willows crew and the Weasels, becomes a dance battle, and the final ball in which all are reconciled becomes their Graduation /Prom dance. Kenneth Grahame aficionados will notice that we haven’t chosen to dramatise the surreal chapter ‘the Piper at the gates of dawn’ but otherwise you’ll recognise all your favourite characters and all their escapades.

Deaf dancer Chris Fonseca (pictured in Jungle Book) return in In the Willows

“There’s a perception within the industry that Metta creates work very quickly because we’re quite prolific. Actually the majority of our shows are made over several years (we’re just always juggling development for the next show around the production of the current one). I dreamt up this concept for Willows back in 2014 (when we began developing Jungle Book) and I started writing it in 2016 – with the first development week at the Northcott in July 2016. It’s evolved hugely in that time – with another two development weeks in 2017 and an entire Danish production in 2018 when it won a competition for new musical theatre.

“Because we are constantly pushing the boundaries of form – in this production fusing BSL (one of the characters is deaf) hip hop dance, rap and song – such development time is essential. But also it allows us to hear  responses to the work far in advance of putting the work in front of paying audiences. And it was one very astute audience member at the 2017 showing who summed up the show in a nutshell – ‘it’s basically Hamilton crossed with Matilda’. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. And like those two extraordinary new musicals, with no fewer than seven producers interested in a transfer – we too are West End bound (watch this space for announcements of the transfer). So if you fancy a show full of epic show tunes and killer beats that wears it’s heart very firmly on sleeve then join us at the Northcott in February 2019 for this triumphant new musical.”

In the Willows opens on Feb 22 and runs until Mar 2