KXT on Broadway, December 13


Alan Bennett had not encountered Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows as a child, and was deeply suspicious of dramatizing it. Toad apart, he thought the characters muted, and besides, it incorporated horses, cars, trains and barges. He set about it, nonetheless, and came up with something rather clever.

James Raggatt and Elyse Phelan. Photos supplied.

By deepening and darkening Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger and their interrelationships, what had been a series of episodes and escapades now had a through-line of tension, released by light comedy. Bennett took a children’s story about animals in the English countryside, and made a play for adults – although children capable of sitting for two hours may well love it.

Its initial London staging was a design tour de force, courtesy of Mark Thompson and a large budget. Stacks On Theatre’s director, James Raggatt, winds it back to a bare stage, and puts to work the oldest device in the theatrical toolbox: the audience’s imagination.

Raggatt also plays Ratty with commendable flair. In fact, when his Ratty is combined with Elyse Phelan’s Mole and Lachlan Stevenson’s stentorian-voiced Badger, a problem results: Michael Doris’s Toad can’t quite trump them for charm – which Toad really needs to do for us to keep forgiving him. Doris amply creates the hedonistic six-year-old lurking inside Toad, but just misses the winning personality.

Michael Doris and the car.

Much else is right. Six ensemble actors turn their hands to being everything from the river (with fabric) to a cart (two axles and four wheels) and a train (ingeniously depicted by driving-rods without wheels), while Toad’s beloved car is just two shiny red doors with wing mirrors.

The weasels are cockney bovver types, memorably led by Miranda Daughtry, and they share many of the laughs with Ross Walker’s Albert the horse, Bennett’s particular creation, played with austere eastern European pessimism and a disdain for carrots.

Bennett made it a play about the nature of friendship. In real life, personality evolution of can result in some friendships becoming too arduous to justify their continuance. In The Wind in the Willows, Ratty, Mole and Badger stand by Toad, but ultimately only if he reforms himself enough to meet them on their terms. Except that then he’s no longer Toad, his pizazz painted grey. Does one have a right, Bennett asks, to bend another to the demands of friendship?

Until December 23.