Just under 70 yards from the Michael Pilch Studio, in the picturesque and leafy surroundings of Holywell Cemetery, lie the remains of Kenneth Grahame. The author of The Wind in the Willows was presumably devoured decades ago by Ratty and Mole. But would Grahame be spinning in his grave or resting at peace if he saw Peedie Productions’ new staging of his immortal story?
Having seen A.A. Milne’s adaptation, Toad of Toad Hole, a couple of times in the past, I had been struck by its depiction of Edwardian male bonding. Yes, it’s very twee, with anthropomorphised animals portraying social stereotypes who bear little relevance to modern viewers. But it does suggest a loving bond between traditionally divided classes, and that gentle breeze in the willows hints at the beginnings of a wind of change. Previous productions have depended heavily on scenery and costume to create some theatrical magic, in the same way that a Beatrix Potter ballet stuns you because it actually looks like Mrs Tiggywinkle performing a Grand Jete. Student productions rarely have the money to splash on full badger outfits and rural idylls, so how would director Niamh Jones, designer Keira Cumming and costume designer Lara Carroll Price rise to this particular challenge?
The answer: they have gone for a minimal staging, with paper streamers at the side of the stage and some green lighting to offer the barest hint of a woodland world. And in place of animal costumes, they have instead decided to portray the very humans who were being represented by Grahame’s and Milne’s metaphorical mutant mammals. So Mole looks like a humble country dweller of the 1920s, Rat a snazzy young dandy, Toad a pantomime Principal Boy ready to experiment with everything from canal boats to gender fluidity. Am I reading too much into this…?
Without the joy of a fully realised world surrounding them, the characters – even with admirably full-on acting efforts from all concerned – struggled to bring the magic to life in the first half hour. The play felt like it was gasping for the oxygen of a costume and prop budget. But when the Chief Weasel burst onto the stage with all the threat of a football hooligan in a train carriage, it looked like things were about to get tasty.
Sadly, I cannot comment on what happened after that.
The fire alarm went off. The audience evacuated along with the cast – Chief Weasel still in character, barking threats so convincingly that I briefly thought this might be part of the show. But as Balliol students started to file out of their bedrooms into the street, it became clear that this was not a newly discovered scene from the play. I waited for five minutes, after which I was so cold that I trudged home, walking past Holywell Cemetery on the way, and thinking how comfy Kenneth Grahame must be, surrounded by six feet of earth.