Writer: Kenneth Grahame
Adapter: Alan Bennett
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Reviewer: James Garrington
Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole, adventures on the riverbank, escaping from prison dressed as a washerwoman and fighting the weasels; all of the elements of Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale are brought to life on the Crescent Theatre stage in this adaptation by Alan Bennett, which first appeared to rave reviews at the National Theatre in 1990. In this adaptation, Bennett has remained pretty faithful to the book, providing us with an evening that is comfortably predictable – and from the moment Mole appears from the undergrowth the audience know they are in for a treat.
Matthew Douglas is a suitably bumptious Toad, full of his own self-importance, pompous and delightfully over the top in his performance. He seems totally comfortable with this sort of material, with occasional asides and audience interaction. He is well supported by the remainder of the cast. There are 16 actor-musicians in all, playing a wide number of instruments between them and covering rôles as diverse as squirrels, rabbits and a policeman with equal skill and demonstrating some fine singing voices too.
Oliver J Hembrough as Ratty and Nicolas Prasad as Mole form a fine partnership; Hembrough gives us a Ratty with man-of-the-world experience, happily messing about on boats on the river while Prasad’s Mole is an eager pupil, who soon becomes accustomed to life outside his shabby home, enjoying his new-found friendship with his upper-class chum. As they tell us, they don’t need any help with chores about the house because they are self-sufficient; they are bachelors! Robert Pickavance plays the fourth member of the quartet as Badger, whiskery and wise, rather like an elder statesman and dealing with the weasel invasion with aplomb.
Mention should also go to Chris Nayak who steals the show as Albert, the horse. Lugubrious, resigned and depressed he is a sort of cross between Tony Hancock and Marvin from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, delivering some very funny lines in a totally deadpan style and a suitably broad accent that adds to the humour.
The design by Michael Holt is excellent, making the most of the space on the Crescent Theatre stage by clever use of a revolve and by dressing the backstage pass doors to allow the action to be brought down towards, and even into, the audience from time to time; and director Gwenda Hughes takes full advantage of the opportunities the set presents her with. There is humour that works on a number of different levels and although a lot of the humour in the very funny Bennett script itself is more aimed at adults, there is a large amount of slapstick and physical comedy that particularly appeals to the children – and parents can be assured that the jokes are subtle, witty, and always clean.
All in all this is a play with hints of pantomime, giving it a slightly festive feel, and with a definite feel-good factor about it. A delight for the festive season that will appeal to adults and children alike.