Wind in the Willows
11 - 19 December 2009
Fri 7:45pm, Tue 7:45pm, Wed 7:45pm, Thu 7:45pm, Fri 7:45pm, Sat 2:45pm, Sat 7:45pm
Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, their friends and enemies, are all a part of our childhood. Who could fail, then to enjoy an adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame classic by Alan Bennett? The production, directed by Victoria Thompson, will be especially appropriate for all those who wish for a little more magic, gentle humour… and songs in their lives. (Not recommended for the under fives.)
It runs from Friday December 11th to Saturday December 19th, with a matinee performance on the final day. Guaranteed to de-stress Christmas for you the play will feature adult animals with younger animals provided by Lewes Youth Theatre.
Though Toad plays a major part in the Drama the story is not just about his exploits, it is also about a poet, an adventurer, a wise companion and a horse from Wolverhampton who may be a new acquaintance for you to meet. The characters that our friends encounter along the river and in the woods bring colour, challenge, pleasure and fear to their existence. The haunting lyrics of Jeremy Sans will delight the ear and the imaginative scenery painted by Hannah Thompson will please the eye. Do not miss out on this opportunity for pleasure, also don’t keep it all to yourselves remember that your grandchildren may wish to share it too! This play will sell out so please book early to be assured that the willows murmur for you at a time and place of your choosing.
Victoria Thompson, Production Director
Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, one of the most beloved works of children’s literature, was born in Edinburgh in 1859. When he was five, his mother died and he was sent to live with his grandmother in Cookham Dean on the edge of the Berkshire downs. The time he spent there, including boating on the River Thames and jaunts into the surrounding fields and woods, were to be a major influence on the creativity of his future writing. At the age of forty, he married Elspeth Thomson and less than a year later their son, Alastair, was born. Blind in one eye and with a pronounced squint in the other, he was nicknamed ‘Mouse’. In 1907, Grahame retired from the Bank of England, where he was Secretary, and moved with his family back to the Berkshire countryside. It was here that the book, published a year later, had its beginnings. It has remained a best-seller ever since.
What has all this to do with the play directed by Victoria Thompson in her swansong production as Artistic Director? Answer, a considerable amount. Unless the background to the book on which the play is based is fully appreciated, the drawing of ‘parallels’, such as those quoted from Songs and Stories of the Netsilk Eskimos in Victoria’s programme notes, can obscure the facts. These are that Wind in the Willows was written by Grahame as bedtime stories for his son when the family returned to Berkshire. ‘Mouse’ was then about the same age as the author had been when he first moved there.
Alan Bennett was invited by the National Theatre in 1987 to write the play, which is a faithful adaptation of the book, although he admits to soon running into difficulties. In a lengthy introduction to the script he concludes, “The play is quite a formidable undertaking and presents many problems which future casts and directors will solve in different ways. I just hope that they will have as much fun doing the play as we all did”. Some of the “problems” Bennett anticipated were evident in this curate’s egg of a production which veered between whimsical comedy, seasonal pantomime and end-of-school-term musical. Nevertheless, there was much “fun”, and several memorable moments.
Toad (Keith Gilbert) deprived of his motor-car, wrapped in a rug and apparently at death’s door, or in magnificent pond-green shades, frog-hopping around the stage, or adopting pantomime-dame falsetto when dressed as a washerwoman; Albert the horse (“A Wolverhampton cousin of Eeyore”) played by Mike Truman with whingeing Brummie accent, who also managed the bewigged tomfooleries of the Magistrate; the schoolmaster-like, stentorian Yorkshire vowels (shades of Bennett himself?) of Badger (Matt Haynes), when issuing instructions to recapture Toad Hall, “We want to learn ‘em!”; tippity-toed Rat (Alan Chapman) scampering between river-bank, Toad Hall and The Wild Wood; bespectacled Mole (James Firth-Haydon) happily lumbering around in corduroys and fair-isle pullover; the enchanting singing of Alice Robinson, as both gaoler’s daughter and a gypsy; the weasels and stoats chanting “We don’t like Moles. They belong in holes”, a chillingly apt scene in view of today’s, sometimes fatal, playground bullying, and the pop-up appearances of a Gestapo-like Chief Weasel (Jack Wilkinson) and his grovelling Weasel Norman (Kate Palmer), with the former doubling as the affable Train Driver who helps Toad to escape from prison.
Squirrels, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, ferrets, otters and a fox, created a veritable menagerie, with several actors playing many different roles, including those of characters in The Wide World. The set, lighting, makeup and costumes reflected hours of painstaking work, not least the efforts with needle and thread to fashion animals’ ears, whiskers and tails.
As an epilogue, Victoria added a piece of the author’s prose which Bennett, it seems, had also considered including but later decided against it. The last scene of the play, with the cast assembled in Toad Hall singing a reprise of the haunting Camp-Fire Song was, as a finale, right on the button. Kenneth Grahame’s prose, read in voice-over fashion by a look-alike Grahame (Phil Dunn), to the accompaniment of a technicolour slideshow projected onto the back of an empty stage, was not.
Poop-poop. Poop-poop. But never quite in top gear.