ACCORDING to my teenage daughter, a lot of her mates have never heard of The Wind in the Willows, let alone read the classic children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908. Can you imagine?!
Thank goodness we indoctrinated the kids with tales of the riverbank from birth. It meant when we arrived at the Bear Pit Theatre for Saturday night’s performance, the whole family, aged ten and up, were looking forward to having lots of innocent fun with some old friends: Ratty, Mole, Badger and, of course, naughty old Toad.
There’s something so comforting and reassuring about the world the animals inhabit: it conjures a pastoral Edwardian Britain, before world wars and a disharmonious Europe, where simply ‘messing about on boats’ and enjoying the splendours of the countryside are the order or the day. The worst problem the friends have to cope with is Toad’s obsession with the new-fangled motorcar, and his subsequent life imprisonment following his ninth crash and theft of a car. Oh and a little local bother with the ‘Wild Wooders’ — ne’er do-well weasels and the like.
The Bear Pit Theatre’s cosy charm is the perfect setting to see Toad of Toad Hall — in this case they stuck to AA Milne’s 1929 play version of the book, which is sweetly sentimental with some wonderfully catchy songs and snatches of rhyme.
While The Bear Pit Company may not be strictly a ‘professional’ outfit, there is much about this production that simply could not be bettered. David Mears’ Toad is unassailably, indubitably brilliant. Those that were lucky enough to witness his Bottom in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year will know that he can illicit joyous belly laughs from an audience with a mere pout, grimace, and, his speciality, a knowingly hammy delivery. He’s simply perfect as the narcissistic, upper class Toad who manages to charm everyone into doing his bidding. ‘An amphibious Boris Johnson’ is how David described his take on Toad to the Herald last week, and that’s pretty spot on.
Shirley Allwork is a brilliant Badger — she is in her 80s and her age lends the role of the wise elder proper gravitas, and her nuanced, understated performance complements the exuberant Toad very well.
Reliable, slightly pompous Ratty, and naïve, excitable Mole are given sympathetic dimension by the honed and confident acting skills of Dominic Skinner and Natalie Danks-Smith, without the need for obvious ‘animal’ costumes and make-up.
In the director’s chair Nicky Cox, who directed the Bear Pit troupe as the Mechanicals at the RSC, ensures there is no let up on pace and entertainment. Locations are cleverly switched from riverbank, to courtroom, to Toad Hall, etc, without the need for any elaborate set change; yet the atmosphere is cleverly shifted and controlled. Mention must be made here of the Wild Wooders, a menacing mob dressed in Edwardian great coats, led by the brilliantly terrifying Tony Homer.
No cars are seen, yet they are ever present. Toad’s thrilling rides and inevitable crashes are hilariously evoked through David’s demented miming and noise-making (“poop poop!”), truly a hoot, and also, by its denouement, a wonderfully happy-hearted tale.
This production simply has all the ingredients for a fantastic family festive feast: go and pig out with Toad.