TOAD OF TOAD HALL
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd December, 2016
A.A. Milne’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel is a classic in its own right, and its brought to charming life here by director Nicky Cox and a talented cast. The playful staging (umbrellas for wagon wheels, stepladders for trees) sits well in the studio space, while the energised performances of the actors makes the action irresistible.
Natalie Danks-Smith is a likeable Mole, a blinking innocent who finds there’s a world of adventure beyond her front door. Dominic Skinner’s affable, dapper Ratty represents what is decent in all of us. Badger (Shirley Allwork) is the voice of experience and authority – the characters each represent an aspect of human nature, it seems. Toad himself is an irrepressible hedonist, selfishly sweeping everyone else along with his whims and fads, embroiling them in the problems he creates. Toad is also a supreme manipulator, caring only for his own interests – he is the attractive but negative side of us, all ego and no conscience. He thinks the law of the land does not apply to him – much like certain members of the ruling class today!
As Toad, David Mears is magnificent. Repellent and attractive at once, his antics are enjoyable if reprehensible, and Mears’s performance is a masterclass in comic acting. No detail is overlooked. Every twitch of an eyelid, every roll of the eyes is calculated to perfection. Toad almost swamps the stage with his personality but Allwork’s Badger provides a well-tuned counterpoint, and an equally rounded if contrasting characterisation. It is a treat to see these two working together.
Tony Homer’s Chief Weasel is an imposing figure, dressed like a sinister doorman – he and the Wild Wooders are clearly of a lower class to the protagonists and therefore undesirables. This is class war of a kind the Tories still propagate to this day: the lower classes are scavengers, liars and criminals – the very transgressions of which they themselves are all too guilty! But, leaving Marx behind for a bit, Homer is rather scary at first before mellowing into a figure of fun, in the court scene and so on. The overthrow of the weaselly squatters puts them back in their place in the societal pecking order, revolution has been averted and the status quo is restored and celebrated, while Toad gets away with escaping from prison…
There is sterling support from Charlotte Froud as a sardonic horse, Philip Hickson as a blustering judge, David Southeard as an affronted policeman, but all players work with commitment and focus, be they providing the walls of a secret tunnel or nattering away as members of the jury. Pamela Hickson gives a delightful cameo as an exuberant washerwoman.
Songs are performed a capella – the ‘Down With Toad’ by Chief Weasel and his confederates is especially effective. It all adds up to an enjoyable evening (my political reservations aside!) excellently presented and reinforcing the Bear Pit’s reputation for the high quality of its productions.