Thursday 14 July 2011

The toad is (damp) toast

Toad, or An Adventurous reinvention of The Wind and The Willows, Southwark Playhouse, London

Leafy garlands hang from the ceiling and the Southwark vaults stretch away from the audience, dank, dark and mysterious. Amidst this shadowy setting, a trio of tree-like creatures hatch a plan. We discover these leafy louts, streaked in war paint, are the top dogs of the wild wood: Weasel, Stoat and Ferret. They’re sick of Toad’s popularity and they intend to ensure he croaks and crows no more. The toad is going to be toast.

The creatures of the wild wood swoosh away on their scooters and are replaced by Ratty, wearing a bright orange life jacket and citrus sunglasses. You wouldn’t know McPherson was playing a rat though, since there’s surprisingly little physical acting here. Everyone, except for a bit of feral scratching from badger and some twinkle toed movement from Toad, seems very human. Mole (Steff White) looks like a funky festival lass, in her geek chic glasses and green wellies. Rat resembles some sort of site-worker and the wild wood creatures look like soldiers in fairly crap camouflage.

Surely the point of adapting The Wind in the Willows, as Kenneth Grahame has done here, is to try to find an imaginative and convincing way to depict animals on stage? Sure, they speak like humans but they’re not, well, human. Why couldn’t Toad do a little more hopping? Why didn’t Mole burrow a few measly holes? Why didn’t Ratty twitch his nose even once?

It isn’t just the animals that seem strangely absent from this story about animals. Jokes are pretty thin on the ground too, with the few attempts proving fairly feeble: ‘My phone’s been hacked!’. Most crucially of all, the dramaturgy is dire. This is a such a straightforward play and yet, for great swathes of time, it makes little sense. The opening scene is bizarrely obscure and it’s hard to tell just who the wood creatures are after. Time is dealt with very strangely indeed. The friendship between Mole, Ratty and Toad is established infeasibly quickly and, after what feels like five minutes, the gang are referring to ‘what we’ve all been through together’. The only thing is, they’ve barely been through anything at all.

Banal conversations drag on for ages and the important stuff is all but lost completely. Toad’s arrogance – a massive driving force in his own downfall – is revealed in fits and starts but never properly established. None of the characters friendships are developed so, when the time comes for Ratty and Mole to save Toad, one doesn’t understand why they don’t just let him hop off into the horizon.

It’s a real shame, because The Wind in the Willows could have made for a breezy, colourful and crackingly entertaining show. It could’ve been simple but thumping with heart and humour. It could’ve been visualised with vibrancy and invention. It could’ve explored clever but economical new ways to depict animals on stage, without falling back on puppetry. It could’ve made great use of those massive, swirling Southwark vaults, which positively drip with dramatic potential.

Perhaps director Dan Bird couldn’t decide how to pitch this piece; whether to transform it into an easily entertaining kid’s show or to ease out the darker elements and bring in the adult audience too. As it is, Toad falls between two camps and is left over-exposed and under-prepared. A damp squib that could’ve been so much more.

Till 30 July 2011


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