This production was billed as a “brilliantly bouncy children’s musical” but would be better described as a summer pantomime. Like many a panto these days, it assumed that everyone already knew the classic story and would be diverted by a few new twists – in particular, portraying Chief Weasel as an estate agent intent on turning Toad Hall into a dogfood factory and the river bank into a sewage outlet. This was a shame, as the majority of the audience were just the age to hear the classic ageless Kenneth Grahame story for the first time, and didn’t need or understand these embellishments.
The show got off to a rather slow start, beginning first with an unnecessary framing device, a “Rat-rospective” (my pun, I’m afraid – but typical of the word fare on offer) on how the story started the previous year and then laboriously introducing (a surprisingly rainbow-coloured) Mole to the audience once, and then an unnecessary second time. By the time Toad had appeared and the three had performed a bottom-waggling dance in the manner of theme-park TV cartoon-character cabaret, I was worried that they might have lost the audience altogether. When Toad said “Aren’t I funny, everybody?”, he had to ask twice; and when he asked “Who would pay to get in here?” a dour adult voice in the row behind muttered “We did”.
The audience soon warmed up, however, once they were invited to join in, when the cast started conducting them in their expected responses and the youngsters, who were learning how to behave at a theatre, had a clear idea of their own role. They relished the cheering and hissing, even if they didn’t really understand what was going on. (A little voice behind me: “What does ‘boo’ mean?”)
I would estimate that the majority of the audience were pre-school or Key Stage 1, with the average age about 4 or 5. They loved the visual elements: the slapstick (“Mummy, I liked the part where the Mole stuffed a cake in the Baddy’s face”), the Scooby-Doo-style chase, and the “he’s behind you” sequence, which they could happily have continued for half an hour. Much of the repartee in between elicited no response from anyone, apart from the odd groan – it was above the youngsters’ heads and beneath the adults’ intelligence. I guess those scenes might go down better with a Key Stage 2 audience.
Talegate Theatre have worked with schools in four counties (I’d be intrigued to see their Attendance show) so I am a little surprised that they were not more in tune with their audience. For example, when they asked why the weasels wanted Toad Hall, the audience shouted with one accord “Toad’s in prison” – demonstrating that young children understand and remember what they see more strongly than what they hear – and Rat, cupping his hand to his ear replied “You say, they want to make it into a dogfood factory?”
There is much to commend this company: a strong and capable cast with a born Dame of a Toad, a lovely evil Chief Weasel and a Mole who can sing her scarf off; and a simple set which is strong enough to dominate a large stage but would also fit into a 4m wide school or village hall. Their website indicates that this show has just begun touring at the start of April, so I hope they will refine their material in the coming weeks, cutting some of the unnecessary verbiage, developing more rapport with their audience and rounding out the flat-pack characters.