Tag Archives: Kenneth Grahame

Warm and Fuzzy

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018

 

This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild.  It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage.  And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around.  Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.

With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure.  She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion.  Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most.  Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.

This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions.  Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary.  Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.

The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble.  Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart.  Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing.  The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.

Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism.  Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised.  It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.

Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.

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A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!

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Toad Hally Awesome

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.

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Putting the Wind Up

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Bridge House Theatre, Warwick, Friday 28th November, 2014

 

The winter touring production by Oddsocks this year is a new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel for children. Director and adaptor Andy Barrow, viewing the story through the prism of Oddsocks characteristic silliness and slapstick theatricality, manages to maintain the integrity of the plot and the well-known and much-beloved characters. As with his Shakespearean shows, the original is still very much with us but presented in this inventive and funny company’s inimitable style. There is something very English about Grahame’s novel, but then there is something particularly English about the Oddsocks sense of humour too.

Elli Mackenzie, as the programme says, ‘shows us her Mole.’ And what an endearing little thing it turns out to be. She also appears as other characters – I almost didn’t recognise her as a male policeman. The woman is a chameleon and an object lesson in characterisation and physical comedy. A co-founder of the company, she is also one of its strongest assets. It’s worth the ticket price (and more) to see her in action.

Fast becoming an Oddsocks favourite, Joseph Maudsley makes for a dapper Ratty, messing about on the water. Maudsley has an appealing, showbizzy-swagger, and a twinkle in his eye, topped off by his mellifluous singing voice – I could listen to him all night. Indeed the music for this production, composed by Lucy Ward, involves a good deal of a capella singing which is very pleasant, and a lot of fun. Audience participation is, of course, a key ingredient.

Also a lot of fun is Oddsocks stalwart, Andrew McGillan is Toad, the insufferable hedonist. He is a master of the larger-than-life performance and adept and quick-witted in his audience interactions. Seeing the show so early in its run (only the second ever performance) there are still some rough edges with transitions and technical cues; McGillan rises above it all, and such is the nature of the in-house style, glitches and hitches actually add to the charm. And it is very charming – especially in the first half. The second half is faster and more manic, and the full ingenuity of the foldaway set becomes apparent, when suddenly a steam train materialises!

Dom Gee-Burch returns to the fold to play Badger and others – a versatile character actor and musician, well-suited to the ongoing silliness. Newcomer Rosamund Hine fits seamlessly into proceedings, matching the quality of the old hands; I hope she becomes similarly embroiled in future Oddsocks productions.

But the idyll is being encroached upon – and here Andy Barrow brings this story from a bygone (or never-was) age bang up-to-date. The countryside, the seat of these animals’ pleasures, is under threat. Barrow switches Grahame’s class conflict with environmental concerns, and ‘fracking’ is not only a perfect Oddsocks word, it’s also a legitimate target in what is the company’s most political show so far. It says something about the state of the nation when this bunch of wacky funsters is compelled to comment on it. Barrow is clever enough not to descend into full-on agit-prop but the message is loud and clear. The countryside must be protected from destructive greed and the country as a whole must be protected from dangerous upper class oafs, the likes of whom we allow to become Mayor of London or Prime Minister. Like Toad, they need to be watched. For the public good, they need to be stopped. The show is like an antidote to Downton Abbey.

The message doesn’t overshadow the fun. There is something here for everyone. Plenty of action and silliness for the kids, peppered with risqué remarks for the adults. An alternative to the traditional pantomime, while using many panto techniques, this Wind in the Willows is a great laugh for all the family. The show is touring until February – catch it if you can!

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Check out tour dates here