21 September 2013

Sincerely, Mr. Toad - Greenwich Theatre, Friday 13th September 2013


Kenneth Grahame makes the lives of his family unbearable while writing The Wind in the Willows and then his son kills himself.  It takes 2 and a half hours to get to this point, by which time nobody cares.

Kenneth Grahame – Adam Venus
Mouse – Keith Jack
Elspeth Grahame – Sarah Borges
Beth Thorpe – Kirsty Anne Myers
Ensemble – Luke Foster, Jamie Jukes, Gareth Healey, Gracie Hughes, Kayleigh Smith, Emma Salvo, Julia Cave

Creative Team:
Music – David Andrew Wilson
Book – David Hutchinson
Lyrics – Katie McIvor
Director – Phillip Rowntree

If I had known this was by the Sell a Door Theatre Company then I would have run a mile from it.  I’ve suffered at their hands before.  And in the process of expressing my opinion, found myself on the receiving end of abuse from members of the company.  Well, I had better dig out my tin hat and flak jacket because I am probably going to get some more 

This has got FAILURE written all over it.  To start with, the subject matter is tired, and I can’t say that its one I really care for anyway.  Essentially, the story is about how dreadful Kenneth Grahame’s life was and how he got so obsessed with writing The Wind in the Willows that he made everyone else’s life awful as well, ignoring his wife and eventually leading to the suicide of his son, Mouse.  This kind of thing – digging about in the psyche of authors of famous children’s authors and uncovering darkness – has been done before  and it didn’t work then.  To set this kind of depressing story to music just isn’t going to work full stop.  Particularly when the story is set in a specific period and the music doesn’t reflect this at all. In fact, the score of this musical is so wildly inappropriate to its subject that I began to think that Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad might soon be waving flags on the barricades as Paris burnt down around them.  Its all very sub-Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Even though His Lordship was actually in the audience , where were Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad all night?  You would have thought that, given the entire story is about the man who created them from his imagination, it might have been appropriate to have incorporated them as characters?  Only once did we get a glimpse into Grahame’s fantasy world of animals and you have to wait for the opening of act 2 to get it – by which time we had nearly given up.  In fact, Him Indoors turned to me in the interval and said “Do you want to stay for the second half?”, which in retrospect I now recognise as a thinly-disguised request to go home.    Grahame’s story is dreary, without sparkle and so portentous that you can tell after the first 20 minutes that you ain’t going to get a happy ending .  Knowing that its all going to go tits up is depressing, and you can feel the doom reaching out to you and dragging you down.  Its over-long by at least half an hour, mainly because the subject is so depressing.  I am sure that everyone went home wondering whether to feel miserable (Mouse commits suicide in some undefined way at the end – possibly there is a train involved but this is unclear) or elated  because they didn’t  have to sit through any more of it. 

Production values were so thin as to be see-through. On a budget this might have been, but this looked cheap and nasty.  Someone’s old bedsheets made makeshift drapes to “decorate” the stage (serving only to emphasise the bleakness rather than hide it) and there was a tiny plywood desk on wonky castors with old books nailed all over it.  Two sets of steps disguised as stacks of books must have taken up a goodly chunk of the production budget and, to be frank, I think it could have better been spent elsewhere.   Better costumes, certainly.    At least, I think they were meant to be books.   Given a decent budget, it might be possible to turn this show into something worth watching, but its going to need some far superior choreography to that which it has at the moment , a major rewrite and a complete change of director. 

Whoever was working on the Sound Desk needs retraining or sacking.  It was all so over-amplified that for a long time I couldn’t hear anything that was being said or sung.  

Given the dreariness of the material, everyone tried hard.  Mouse is a character without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and it is impossible to feel empathy with him, so it is lucky that Keith Jacks didn’t even seem to be trying.  Winsome will only get you so far, love.  Sarah Borges as Mrs. Grahame hid her light under a bushel until almost the very end, taking on a solo of such musical complexity and requiring an incredible vocal range so she can be excused for finding the upper and lower reaches slightly difficult.  Move the song away from the end of Act 2, direct it more sympathetically and it has the potential to be a showstopper.   Nobody else really made an impression.

A real stinker. 

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