LONDON -- On the stage where one expects the great plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Arthur Miller, audiences instead are finding a mole, a rat, a badger and a toad.

"The Wind in the Willows," adapted by Alan Bennett from the much-loved Kenneth Grahame book, has provided the National Theater with the kind of smash usually associated with big West End musicals.

Set alongside Grahame's famous River Bank, the play charts the burgeoning friendships of four variously furry and scaly creatures whose lessons for humanity are clear. Toad, the mansion-owning braggart, learns modesty, even as Rat and Mole cross social and class barriers to strike up an enduring friendship.

The play ends with a garden party celebrating the best traits of Englishness: restraint, humility and gentility, which the characters collectively embody.

The show, which opened Dec. 12 in the theater's Olivier auditorium, was an instant winner with critics.

Having a hit is nothing unusual for the production's principals.

Bennett is the British dramatist responsible for "Single Spies" and "40 Years On" as well as television's "Talking Heads," and such films as "Prick Up Your Ears" and "A Private Function."

The director, Nicholas Hytner, moves frequently between theater and opera. He next goes to Broadway to direct "Miss Saigon."

The cast of 24 combines National Theater veterans such as Michael Bryant (Badger) and David Bamber (Mole) with popular British comic actors Griff Rhys Jones (Toad) and Richard Briers (Rat).

Children in the Finchley Children's Music Group, consisting of three groups of 10, play assorted field mice, bunnies and squirrels. They appear prior to the intermission to sing the Christmas carol "In the Bleak Midwinter," one of the evening's more magical moments.

The show has sold out every performance so far and has kept cash registers ringing with intermission sales of videos, T-shirts, postcards and other merchandise inspired by the characters in the story.

The first day of bookings, Nov. 5, broke the theater's single-day box office record, although publicist Nick Starr declined to give exact figures.

Starr said the National has not seen such public interest in a production since its presentation of the musical "Guys and Dolls" in 1982.

The play itself works on several levels: as a children's entertainment for Christmas, complete with hissable bad guys (the weasels); as a parable of repression, involving a quartet who need to find themselves, both socially and sexually; and as an idyll linking the River Bank to such bucolic images from English literature as Shakespeare's Forest of Arden in "As You Like It."

"The idea is that this is a book which {is} not just at the center of English nostalgia but {is} itself about English nostalgia," Hytner, 34, said in an interview. "That nostalgia for the golden age, an English Arcadia, is something all Englishmen want to escape to."

The director initiated the production in response to an offer to stage something at the National over the holidays.

"Like many Englishmen, it was my favorite book from childhood," said Hytner, a judge's son from the northern English city of Manchester.

"I wanted to do something at the National this Christmas which would be a treat, which wouldn't be mawkish or tragic or violent or even a gently ironic attack on the way we live now."

Besides "Miss Saigon," the musical about a doomed love affair set in Vietnam, Hytner's other recent credits include Shakespeare's darkest play, "King Lear"; the Holocaust drama "Ghetto"; and Ben Jonson's satire of avarice, "Volpone."

Bennett said he found adaptations more taxing than original writing.

"It's harder than not being constrained, especially with this book, which everyone knows so well. It's like adapting the Gospels," he said.

In a pre-performance lecture at the National, Bennett said the book was not part of his Yorkshire boyhood. "It's a classic, and the nature of a classic is it's a book you think you've read when you probably haven't," he said.

Other adaptations of the story abound. A 1985 Broadway musical, starring Nathan Lane, was a fast flop.

"Toad of Toad Hall," A.A. Milne's 1929 version, remains a British perennial, even if Bennett and Hytner were after something sharper.

"It's a bit twee {precious}," Bennett said of the earlier version. "The theater's moved on a bit since."

For this production, the Olivier stage barely stops moving. Mark Thompson's design makes full use of the theater's electric-powered drum revolve, which earns applause as it lifts up from 40 feet under the stage to show the different homes of Rat, Badger and Mole.

"The Wind in the Willows" continues in repertory through June 1 alongside David Hare's New York-bound "Racing Demon," Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Tony Harrison's "The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus."