By Brenda Sandilands and Gillie Tunley.
The Progress Theatre presents a captivating production of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless The Wind in the Willows this week, in the enchanting setting of Caversham Court Gardens alongside the tranquil Thames.
The play, adapted by Mike Kenny and charmingly directed by Laura Mills and Rik Eke, opens on a simple and intimate set. There are rustic picnic hampers on either side containing costume and props for seamless character changes (we especially loved the spiky woollen hats worn by the adorable baby hedgehogs!) and also helpful painted symbols indicating changes of season.
The story bursts into life with Alex McCubbin’s laddish and weaselly Arthur Daley of the Thameside property world, who harangues the audience and tries to sell us Toad Hall. In the words of Mike Kenny, “the framing device is that Toad Hall is up for sale [because] it’s falling to pieces”.
During the first half, we meet Mole, played by the enchantingly effervescent Lola Vegas in shiny Doc Martens and Moley plus-fours who fizzes with enthusiasm, and the sensible and pragmatic ‘party pooper’ Rat, played by Biffo Bear. Despite their differences, an unlikely and touching relationship blossoms between them (partly due to Ratty’s propensity for ‘messing about on the river’). They decide to visit Toad, although Ratty is wary of his obsession with following current fads.
Toad (Peter O’Sullivan) is blustering, irascible and yet seductively personable in his green velvet smoking jacket with a lime green inset. We also meet Badger (Robyn Kingston), who is curmudgeonly and solitary but with solid inner strength. Otter (Emma Bryant) is bustling and vigorously robust. Other key roles were endearingly played by Karolina Michalowicz (Rabbit) and Ethan Law (Billy).
Toad is the cause of a series of mishaps which will be familiar to fans of this classic story. Having abandoned boating, he turns his attention to horse-driven caravans. He then takes up motorcars, which – predictably – leads to accidents and trouble with the law.
We see Trevor Dale in a series of superb cameos as a blundering horse, a resonant judge, and a flouncing and unusually tall bearded washer woman! There is a delicious moment of hilarious ad lib between Toad and the Bargee, when Toad escapes from gaol and makes his way home by barge.
Towards the end of the play, Toad (with the help of loyal friends Ratty, Moley and Badger) confronts the creatures from the Wild Wood who’ve taken over Toad Hall and they eventually reach a peaceful understanding. This magical production was enhanced by rousing musical numbers and by the assembled cast ‘Greek chorus’ sound effects.
In the words of the producer, Carol Brown, the Progress Theatre wants the audience to “experience the magic of theatre in the most beautiful of surroundings”. This is a delightful and memorable production for adults and children alike!
The Progress Theatre’s production of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ opens at Caversham Court Gardens on Wednesday 12 July and runs until Saturday 22 July. Tickets can be bought online or by telephone on 0118 384 2169. The theatre offers advice to guests about how to make this outdoor production more comfortable.
- The Progress Theatre website and Facebook page
- ‘The Wind in the Willows’ at Caversham Court Gardens
- Progress Theatre tickets