The blurb for Southwark Playhouse’s latest production, Toad, a new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, promises that you will be “more than an audience, you’ll become part of the Wild Wood itself”.
What this really means is that, for one scene, two of the characters will run up the central aisle. Other than that, what we have is a production which tries to think of itself as edgy and innovative, but despite the best efforts of the cast fails to deliver on those points while still remaining entertaining.
Any stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows must by necessity require some degree of imagination in the minds of the audience, as the woodland creatures of the novel are portrayed on stage by very obviously human actors. It’s possibly this part of the production where Toad is most successful. The water-loving Ratty is decked out in his sailing all-weather gear, Toad himself wears green waders, a light mac and green swimming goggles. Most effective of all, the creatures of the Wild Wood – Weasel, Stoat and Ferrett – are decked out in camouflage gear, making their initial emergence from the Wild Wood (the Vault’s twin tunnels, hauntingly lit) all the more effective.
The ramshackle nature of the props and costumes play in to the play’s themes of the power of the imagination. That same theme is emphasised by the biggest diversion from the original story, as the three Wild Wood creatures conspire to drive Toad to the brink of despair, concocting an elaborate plan that plays out over four seasons.
Dan Starkey, as Toad, pitches the childlike enthusiasm at just the right level, leading a spirited cast who are clearly having a ball. Not all the performances are successful as they need to be to sell the play’s concept, though: while Mark Conway just about manages to convince that he can play a trio of deceptive rabbits at once, he struggles — as anyone would — to convey all twelve members of Toad’s jury.
It’s fun watching him try, though. And that’s the nub of this production — while it may not always work, it is great fun. It’s not quite the “Wind in the Willows for the Doctor Who generation” that the publicity claims, but it is a great family show.