Photo: Craig Fuller
The first Christmas show of the year (for me, anyway) is an utterly charming celebration of friendship and inclusivity which also manages in a timely and timeless way roundly to condemn the worst traits of human beings. The decent animals in Toby Dulse’s play regard behaving like humans as reprehensible (although, obviously talking is OK). Thus the more “human” Toad becomes the worse predicament he’s in and must be saved from. I like that take on Kenneth Grahame.
The lovely opening of this show, directed by the ever reliable Roman Stefanski, rivals The Lion King for dramatic impact as the cast come in from the back singing (one of Julian Butler’s usual sparky songs) and with magnificent bird and insect puppets which “fly” and bob over the audience. When they reach the stage the set is in two halves because the Polka playing space is very deep. Designer Liz Cooke provides a huge, titled sawn off tree trunk upon which much of the action takes place with an imagined river around it and another space upstage which becomes, for example the depth of the Wild Wood or Toad Hall. I lived the ferret puppet masks with their lit red eyes too. This The Wind in the Willows is beautifully designed.
The other unusual but very successful concept here is that the animals are scaled so that they are in miniature world of their own. So when Toad is imprisoned it’s by a disembodied child who sees him in a toy car, captures him and puts him in a jar. Later Toad invents a silly human story about a prison and escape dressed as a washerwoman for a totally unconvinced Ratty and Mole. Ratty’s boat is the sort of paper one a child would make from a sheet of newspaper and he rows it with a feather. The ducks (more exquisite puppets) are larger than Ratty and Mole. Toad’s motoring helmet is made out of a prickly conker shell and so it goes on.
There are some nice performances here too. Andrew Chevalier as Ratty, for example, whom I’ve seen before in very serious classical roles with the Faction Repertory Company, is warmly entertaining and, I think, enjoying himself. He sings adequately too. Andrea Matthea-Laing, in her first professional role, gives us a charming and near-perfect Mole: nervous, entranced and gaining moral strength as a play progresses. Phil Yarrow as a fine Toad does, among many other things, the best toddler tantrum I’ve ever seen on stage. Every child (and parent) in the house recognised it with glee. Kara Taylor Alberts and Jessica Dennis competently play all the minor roles and form an ensemble. Alberts is fun, for example, as the angry ferret made to pull Toad’s caravan because a horse would be too big.
Edd Muruako is a gravelly Badger who uses a northern accent spliced with Caribbean. He’s a big chap and looks good because he dwarfs the smaller animals but his acting is a bit wooden which is a pity.
The singing in this show is generally more enthusiastic than musically accomplished but actually in this context that matters very little. While some of the solo work is iffy, the choral singing works pretty well and it all adds to a deliciously homely two hours of thoughtful escapism. The rest of this year’s Christmas shows are as pleasant as this I shall be a happy woman by 25 December.
Photo: Craig Fuller