(Seen at the preview performance on 26th June 2017).
For over two decades “Toad of Toad Hall” was an annual Christmas feature in the
West End. One actor played Mole for much of the run, and the show creaked on
until times changed. The National Theatre produced, and revived “The Wind in the
Willows” to enormous acclaim in their own Christmas schedules from 1990 onwards
– and the monkey well remembers the joy in both show and actually managing to
get a ticket.
Thus, this Fellowes / Stiles and Drewe version developed by Theatre Royal
Plymouth and part crowd-funded is the latest in a long line. Showing up for the
school summer holidays instead, it seemed curious scheduling – until the monkey
had seen the show. Simply, the Palladium panto had over £5 million banked by
Christmas Eve last year, and takes the prime slot again for 2 further years.
Fortunate, as quite honestly, this production the monkey fears wouldn’t have
fared nearly so well in that season... or possibly this one...
Gary Wilmot channels previous Palladium hit “Cats” with an “Old Deuteronomy”
like Badger, the best performance, song and characterisation in the show. His
storyline and personality carry everything, and this always reliable star keeps
the show going to the bitter end.
Aside from his number “A Friend Is Still A Friend,” a quite pretty Christmas
choral “The Wassailing Mice” is the other musical highlight. The rest of the
score is either rumpty-tumpty, twee, or in the case of “The Wild Wooders,” at
“Dad Dancing / chilling wid’ de’ yout’” embarrassing level.
A few numbers are actively redundant – among them the weird “One Swallow Does
Not A Summer Make” which gives 3 ladies a chance to work while the scene is
changed, and a “comedy” song about hedgehogs crossing a road. Both add nothing
but running time to an already flabby show.
Simon Lipkin as Rat clearly yearns for as good a role and song as Wilmot, and
both he and Craig Mather (Mole) try and extract some amusement from a leaden
script almost devoid of humour, let alone a genuine joke. It’s telling that the
only clever gag in the entire show is written on a blackboard SPOILER (TOAD4601
– geddit?!). SPOILER ENDS.
Mr Toad himself, played for the very first time that night by understudy
Chris Aukett was clearly exceptionally nervous. Occasionally inaudible, and
obviously not familiar enough with the role to relax and have a little fun with
it, he is to be applauded for turning in obviously the best performance that he
could. Sadly, he showed how poorly the part was written, but not a single fault
in the show was down to his work. Even Chief Weasel (Neil McDermott – doing his
best, too) got a slightly stronger character written for himself.
Of the ladies, it’s no real wonder Baby Otter Portia (Emilie Du Leslay) ran
from Mrs Otter (Denise Welch). The relationship was excruciating – nearly as
awkward as the accent Welch adopted for no particular reason, and certainly not
to match her daughter’s.
On a set that varied from charming burrows and acceptable boats to
out-of-scale train, sketched in Mansion and SPOILER weird “Grease” nod
(spectacularly laboured) and “Barnum” tribute final sequence SPOILER ENDS,
director Rachel Kavanaugh struggled to keep the pace beyond “aren’t we having
fun kids, yes we are,” level for much of the evening.
The monkey suspects that the final weeks of the run – coinciding with the
major school holidays - will be busy. For misbehaving children, this has to be
the perfect treat. For all others, “Aladdin,”
and “The Lion King” are also available.
This is probably the first ever self-reviewing show, with the Toad’s final
cry of “Poop, poop” really summing things up, alas.