Long before the word “whimsical” became associated with lawn gnomes and photos of dogs in sunglasses, there was Kenneth Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows, which possibly originated the term.
This landmark children’s story about a spoiled toad and his loyal animal friends was written in 1908 both as a slow-paced nature yarn as well as — in parts — a fast-paced adventure.
Livelier portions of the book are being staged with some aplomb by the Red Deer College Theatre Studies department, which is presenting Philip Goulding’s adaptation, Toad of Toad Hall, at the RDC Arts Centre until Dec. 3.
While true whimsey is increasingly hard to pull off in this cynical age, the second-year RDC students managed to give it a pretty good go in Friday night’s performance of this family production, directed by Lynda Adams.
The story line — set in a fantastical forest setting that was gorgeously created, complete with a pond and giant tree house, by imaginative set designer Carrie Hamilton — concerns Rattie, Mole and Badger (who are respectively played by Kelly Kozakevich, Elise Dextraze, and Tucker New).
The three furry chums make mostly vain attempts to rein in their self-entitled amphibian friend Toad, (Andres F. Moreno), who’s going through his family fortune at a furious pace in his quest for life in the fast lane.
When Toad sets his sights on a new sports car that was recently acquired by snotty aristocrats Lady “Bunny” and Lord “Foxy” Moreton-Pinkney, his cheeky, car-swiping, speed-demon habits land him in front of a hanging judge. (Surely the definition of injustice is getting a 30-year jail sentence when your entire froggy lifespan is only about a tenth of that.)
But even the more sensitive children in the audience needn’t weep for Toad, who does a pretty good job of crying over his own plight before handily making a jail break dressed as a washerwoman.
This plot device cues some talky and obscure English humour delineating the great divide between the “peasant” classes and the toffee-nosed nobility.
The high points of this play are the hilarious portrayals of the clueless Moreton-Pinkneys by Adam Hynes as Lord Foxy, and Danielle Bye as Lady Bunny.
Gilligan’s Island fans can’t help thinking of the Moreton-Pinkneys as sort of dimmer, British versions of Thurston Howell and “Lovey” — only sporting a pith helmet and bloomers.
Hynes and Bye have not only hit upon the right amount of hamminess for their portrayals, they have created actual characters, rather than just playing more animated versions of themselves. In that vein, it would have been nice to see some of the other actors further playing up their sniffy, twitchy or aggressive animal characteristics to create unique characters — for this play needs to find humour in the way lines are delivered, rather than in the script itself.
That said, Toad has his moments, as he’s booting around the stage in his converted golf cart “sports car” — as does Ratty, who gives a good reading near the end of the play of an insulting poem about the weasels who have taken over Toad Hall, threatening to turn it into Weasel Tower.
There’s some pleasant music, nice audience interaction, some really imaginative effects, and a fun fight scene, conducted with plenty of leaping and tie pulling. There’s also a good message about the responsibilities of friendship that went over so well with my 10-year-old daughter that she plans on seeing Toad of Toad Hall again.
“I liked that Toad got into so many messes that he had to get out of, and I liked what it said about friendship,” was her verdict.
So while jaded me might have wished for a faster paced production with a few more chuckles, the target audience found the play perfectly charming, thank you very much.
Seems whimsey can still sometimes win out over cynicism.