The reputation of Alton Fringe Theatre as a source of challenging and imaginative productions was admirably sustained through its recent presentation of The Wind in the Willows. Here one of its members, Simon Applegarth, had given Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved tale an entirely new treatment for the stage. This version was then further enhanced by the atmospheric and equally original music composed and largely performed by another member, Jo Foulkes.
The liveliness of the Applegarth adaptation was quickly evident from the framing device that encased the main plot. With a clear nod to a certain maturity within the Fringe company, its playwright had relocated his opening scene to a riverside home for elderly gentlefolk. However, this was also the setting in which Nurse Frieda Weasel (Chris Chappell) and Geoff Ferret (Peter Cox) were running an oppressive regime that might well have benefited from closer scrutiny by whatever still survives of the Care Quality Commission. It was then precisely as a means of inflicting revenge upon this uncouth pair that the inmates began to enact for us their own particular version of Grahame’s essentially escapist fantasy.
The success of the book, originally published in 1908, stemmed largely from the contrasts of character with which the author had endowed his protagonists – nothing less than a quartet of bucolic Edwardian bachelors (transformed into loosely animal guise) pursuing lives of leisure and of gastronomic delight. Now on stage, the subtleties of differentiation between them were well preserved both by the script and by the accomplished acting of four Fringe stalwarts. So, we had Ratty (Tim Guilding), generous but painfully pedantic; Mole (Sarah Castle-Smith), timorous but ultimately heroic; Badger (James Willis), reclusive but staunchly courageous – and of course Toad (Barbara Rayner), good-hearted but incorrigibly foolish. Very familiar to all Willow admirers are the latter’s gadfly fads, which threaten to bring Grahame’s rural Arcadia crashing down around the others’ furry ears by unleashing all that is most dreadful and subversive from the Wild Wood and even from the wider world beyond.
In this production those four major characters enjoyed able support from the versatile multi-tasking contributions made by the rest of the cast, which also included Catherine Gerlach, Ann Scott, and Lesley Willis. The upshot was another well-deserved success for a company that flourishes as a mutually supportive ensemble. All the players benefited from a script that kept closely, but never slavishly, to Grahame’s own well-crafted dialogues and narrative structure. Fortunately, however, there was no very protracted lingering upon his most ponderous chapters – those dealing so mawkishly with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn and with Ratty’s transient temptation to follow ‘the call of the South’. As directed by Louise Dilloway, the action was generally fast-moving and always visually ingenious. The production made good use of rod and shadow puppets, together with back projection and other forms of technical expertise. Moreover, out of very little, the actors themselves managed to conjure up for us a rowing boat, a horse-drawn caravan, or a most imposing motor car – as well as malevolent animal eyes glowing amidst forest darkness, or even a set of otter-bubbles rising to the surface of a stream.
After the liberation of Toad Hall from the stoats and the weasels, the Applegarth finale featured the care-home residents resting once again in their wicker chairs, but now with their upstart managers left still gagged and bound in a corner. Thus, to the very end, this adaptation remained faithful in spirit to Kenneth Grahame’s humour. Yet. equally, the Fringe presentation also succeeded in reflecting something of that writer’s obsessive concern to uphold the kind of moral and social order that was already coming under hostile challenge in Edwardian England.