Toad is a fantasist who lives in a grimy Portakabin, Badger a half-deaf survivalist in a camouflaged shed and the luminous riverbank of Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian idyll is the dank and mouldering vault of the Southwark Playhouse. Bad Physics return to the scene of their triumphant Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World with a fast-paced and often very funny reimagining of The Wind in the Willows which, though perhaps less adventurous than it claims to be, is nevertheless high-quality family entertainment.
Played out in the algae ridden tunnels of the vault space, this version of the classic story seems to take place beneath the river rather than around it, with hanging fronds of pondweed and mounds of broken objects sunk in the muddy floor. Class distinctions have been submerged too, Toad is no longer the pompous child of old money and the weasels and stoats have lost their association with criminal elements of the working class. Instead the Wild Wooders become three bumbling villains, Weasel, Ferret and Stoat, engaged in a muddled plot to knock Toad down a peg or two. These alterations are less significant than you might expect, and much of the story plays out as it always has, but they do successfully plant the eponymous Toad in the very centre of the action.
Toad has here been recast as a bluff Scouse rascal, brilliantly performed by Dan Starkey in an effortless comic turn which helps buoy up the action on several occasions when it might have otherwise dragged. Similarly strong performancesby Steff White (Mole) and Jonny McPherson (Rat) make the show’s first half hour varied and engaging, and it is a shame they are accorded so little to do in the second half. Perhaps best of all is Ben Neale’s Weasel, whose furious performance had a number of children shrieking and bubbling within five minutes of his entrance.
Unfortunately the script itself, lead devised by director Dan Bird, misses more often than it hits. Knowing winks to pop culture stalwarts Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver have long since lost their bite, and too often jokes are stretched far beyond their capacity. An interminable trial sequence sees the balance tip from passionate free-wheeling to exhausting self-indulgence, though a well-timed punch line mercifully keeps the show on the rails. Even at just over an hour Toad feels overlong, particularly for young children sat in such a cold and unpleasant environment.
It is likely to be children who will get the most out of this, however, and truthfully the ‘boundless imagination’ with which it is promoted extends little further than the aesthetic. James Cotterill’s junk-punk design is integrated skilfully with the space, but neither the ‘immersive aesthetic’ nor the overall performance style is particularly unique. Staged anywhere else and this would be classic Edinburgh Fringe family fare, and it would work wonderfully in schools; it’s hard not to feel that it has been slightly miss-sold. Don’t let that put you off, there’s still plenty of exciting staging and well-timed comedy, and few productions of Wind in the Willows this summer will boast a better cast. Moments such as the arrest of Toad, in which he is flung over the bonnet of a VW Polo and read his rights, or the apparent murder of our hero on a forest cliff-top are worth the trouble of a jaunt to the Wild Wood on their own.