Sincerely, Mr Toad

For over one hundred years The Wind in The Willows has remained one of the most popular pieces of English literature. Inspired by the bedtime stories he told his son, Kenneth Grahame took refuge from his sedentary job at the Bank of England to indulge his whimsical side through his literary passions. Yet, as Sincerely, Mr. Toad, explores the life of this creator was far from carefree. Blending well-known scenes from within the novel with a real world narrative, Sincerely, Mr Toad explores Kenneth Grahame’s life and relationships.

The major problems within the play are a result of the book. Much of the musical focuses around Kenneth Grahame’s relationships with his family members, particularly his son. However, most of the contentious moments between Alastair Grahame and Kenneth Grahame happen without any real confrontation between the characters, conducted either through letters or monologues leading to a frustrating lack of tension. Though this is clearly a stylistic choice it simply doesn’t work, creating too much distance between the events on stage.

The music is of a very high production value. The ensemble is strong and the singing is faultless. Messing About in Boats is a particularly lovely number that evokes the spirit of The Wind in the Willows effortlessly. In many ways the musical numbers are the strongest part of the show; the songs are pleasing and catchy and the acting is noticeably more sophisticated during them. Kenneth Grahame (Adam Venus) is particularly impressive during the musical numbers; My Dark Mind is one of the few scenes where the link between The Wind in the Willows and his personal narrative is effectively used. The choreography and music combine wonderfully to mimic the horror from the infamous weasel scenes in the novel, which is compared to Grahame’s own real dissatisfaction with society around him. The other musical highlight is also courtesy of Venus in the emotionally fraught If Yesterday Were Now.

Perhaps due to editing for fringe audiences, much of the substance, which has much potential, feels only briefly touched on. There is no build-up towards the climactic moments and as a result the pace drags slightly.

The casting also has issues. Though Keith Jack (as Alisdair Grahame) is undeniably a talented performer, for most of the musical he is too old for the character he plays. The same is true for Alastair’s childhood companion Beth Thorpe, played by Kirsty Marie Ayers, again a very talented performer but who feels very out of place. There is very little in their acting that distinguishes between the friendship of childhood and an eventual more mature relationship. The chemistry between the two characters remains the same throughout which makes their supposedly evolving relationship all the more confusing.

The characterisation of Alaistair as a whole is somewhat confusing. His relationship with those around him remains unclear; it is never certain if he is emotionally disturbed (as his historical counterpart supposedly was) or if the production is attempting to portray him as mischievous or whimsical. This lack of clarity throughout hinders the audience from empathising with him, a rather vital aspect in appreciating the musical.

The play has lost some subtlety in trying so desperately to represent aspects of the narrative of Kenneth Grahame’s life as supposed inspiration for Wind in the Willows. The musical implies rather heavily that Grahame’s failings as a father were a direct result of him trying to write The Wind in the Willows, however, as the novel was first published in 1908 Grahame was not actively writing it for most of Alistair’s life.

The real disappointment with this production is that it has so much potential. The music is appealing and the outline for the story has the potential to be great. However, in its current format everything just feels too superficial. The sub-plots hinted at during the musical numbers are never fully fleshed out and as a result feel somewhat incomplete. The depths needed to convey such a tragic tale are simply never reached. It fails to evoke the charm of its inspiration but doesn’t yet manage to stand on its own dramatic feet.

Reviews by Nicole Adam

Performances

The Blurb

2012 Fringe First winners depict how Kenneth Grahame's dysfunctional relationship with his son led to the creation of the literary classic The Wind in the Willows in an original musical.