IN REVIEW: Toad at Toad Hall

Erin Perkins
By Erin Perkins
February 19th, 2012

Local theatre productions give audiences a chance to project themselves into another reality and take a break during our seemingly long winter. This weekend’s Rivers Edge show, Toad at Toad Hall, was well produced with excellent acting, clever set design and lively music. But the show fell short of its mark for the audience, failing to keep them engaged for the evening and leaving me with mixed feelings.

Toad at Toad Hall is a play written by A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame but it is based on the story Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The story is a century old and is therefore challenging to adapt to modern audience tastes.

Nothing in what the theatre society created was bad, but the story was a bit long and seemed to be missing key elements. I’m not sure that it was necessarily for children (at least in this modern age) due to the length. In fact, I didn’t see a lot of children in attendance. The play failed to completely engage my four year-old, although we attended the 7:30 p.m. showing on Friday night so he likely was tired.

Personally, I would have liked to have seen more about the motor car. Essentially the story is about a Toad whose impulses lead him to “borrow” a motor car. He is caught, tried by a ridiculous court, incarcerated in a castle, escapes under the guise of a washer woman and makes his way home to fight off the weasels, ferrets and stoats (a weasel whose fur is brown in summer and white in winter) who are inhabiting his beloved home, Toad Hall.

Before reviewing the story itself, I must make some qualifications. I have not read the play and do not know if there is something missing or not. I have studied 18th and 19th century British literature extensively, so do have an understanding for the language and the lengthy nature of story telling of that era.

The story sounds fantastic, but the most interesting parts — like the motor car stealing and the arrest — were missing. The audience is jolted from a scene in Mr. Badger’s house where the friends are trying to cure Toad of his passion for motor cars (poop, poop) to the court house. We never see the act that got him to the court house. We are told about it — but I would have liked to have seen it.

Granted a motor car is a difficult thing to put on stage but the producer, Eleanore Martens, and her set design crew did such a great job of the caravan and river boat that I have no doubt that a motor car would have looked great.

The set design by Leta Heiberg Bak mimicked the colours and style of the Wind in the Willows illustrations, which I thought was a nice touch. There was a real 3-D effect with the layers of set design, including the use of string lights in a blue gauze running along the front of the stage portraying a river and a giant story-sized tree.

The live music with Lorraine Barg on keyboard, Liz Martin on cello and Elizabeth Clark on flute definitely added to the show. Live music lends such an authenticity to any production.

I would have liked to see the characters costumes to be more animal-like than they were. Water Rat needed ears out the top of his hat, Toad needed some kind of flipper-type gloves to enhance his toadiness, Mole needed ears out of his hat and a little stubby tail and Mr.Badger needed a long black and white striped tail.

The key actors – Mole played by Jen Burrows, Water Rat played by Lee Anne Lawrence, Mr. Badger played by Chris Moslin and Toad played by Gary Smith – did a fantastic job mimicking their given animal characters.

Lawrence’s rat-like nose wiggling and scurrying was fun and well timed. Gary Smith had the most impressive Toad presence. He really looked like a toad (no insult intended Gary).

His mannerisms were stellar and his costuming was as creative and vibrant as his character. I loved the shiny green shoes! Mr. Badger’s striped head was so realistic and so were his mannerisms right down to how he held his black-nailed paws and half closed his eyes.

Cudos also go to Margo Evers who played the washerwoman — I loved her! Great job of being tied up and the ‘strip tease’ was well executed.

I so anticipated this production, being a lover of theatre. I’m new to Grand Forks, so this was the first time I’d seen a River’s Edge Theatre production. The acting talent was great, but this was a difficult play to produce so I felt they did a good job trying to execute it.

I had some good chuckles but I don’t know if given the chance that I would see it again. I do, however, look forward to seeing the actors in action again.