It’s become something of a Christmas tradition that we take a group including Lady Duncansby and our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, to the festive season play at the Royal, as they are always a yuletide treat, and a bit different from panto – not that there’s anything wrong with panto, but sometimes you need a change. Thus eight of us monopolised Row C of the stalls last Monday teatime to witness Ratty and Mole messing about in boats, Toad being a menace on the roads and the weasels committing a most appalling act of aggravated squatting.
I never read “Wind in the Willows” as a child, so you might consider me deprived as a result; but I did play Ratty in a Saturday morning drama school abridged version of Toad of Toad Hall when I was 10, which hopefully makes up for it. Toad is a boastful, brash and insensitive oaf whose only goal is to satisfy his own need for thrills and spills and doesn’t really deserve the loyalty of his faithful riverbank friends. The story makes some interesting observations on the class system – when Toad is in prison, he initially turns his back on the helpful suggestions of the jailer’s daughter simply because she is of a lower class than him. His friends Ratty, Mole and Badger are all distinctly middle class, and his enemies, the weasels, are frankly guttersnipes. But the moral, I guess, is that you should behave properly, don’t boast, don’t speed, and do what policemen tell you. The ideal is to be the perfect, law-abiding citizen, and that’s no bad thing for kids to learn.
It’s an inventive and satisfying set, full of secret doors, panels and tunnels, just as you would expect from the directorial imagination of Gary Sefton, who has given us such local gems as Travels with my Aunt, Diary of a Nobody, A Christmas Carol, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mr Sefton really knows how to make the most of a small acting space, and this production is a highly entertaining addition to his Northampton oeuvre. The revolving stage comes to good use depicting the river current, and the use of the area in front of the stage makes for surprisingly cunning passageways and underground shenanigans. Bringing Toad’s car to life, with its squeaky windows and putt-putt sound of the engine, is a real feast for the imagination and you can easily imagine kids everywhere going home and playing pretend cars as a result. Turning the courtroom scene into a burlesque is a spot of genius, and the train chase, with policemen getting battered by the wind on the roof, is both thrilling and hilarious. We all particularly liked how the direction and design combined to depict Toad drowning in the river, even though we thought it was odd that, as an amphibian, he would have had problems in this department; but then he is a thoroughly useless toad. In addition, the show has a few good songs, some of which you end up singing to yourself not only on the way home but a few days later too. The costumes are, somewhat curiously, based on a series of woollen onesies, which actually works better than it sounds.
In the production we saw, Toad was played by Gavin Spokes, full of fun and confidence, a noisy spoiled brat with a touch of the Alan Carr about him – I think it was the glasses that did it. He is accompanied by a splendidly suave Ratty played by Christopher Harper (hilarious in Sheffield’s The Village Bike in 2012), Siôn Lloyd’s Brian Blessed-like Badger, Katy Phipps’ rather cute Mole (I loved the slight hint of potential romance between her and Ratty), Jennie Dale’s fabulous Judge, and Cherrelle Skeete’s bombastic clerk. But for me the star of the show was a brilliant physical performance by Stuart Angell as the Chief Weasel, as well as a very dour Albert the horse and that poor policeman assaulted by the elements. And finally, but certainly not least, there were the children! We saw “Team A” perform and they were amazing. Witty, smart, convincing; scary as weasels, malicious as “hang ’em and flog ’em” court witnesses, irksome as train commuters, they didn’t put a foot wrong and were very funny indeed.
Another superb Christmas play at the Royal!