“There was no sound… except for the wind in the willows, whispering ever so gently.” 

The moment I walked into The Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, I was ready to forget the freezing cold outside, trading it for the growing warmth of spring. The atmosphere was peaceful and serene – much needed at this point in term. Directed by Niamh Jones and produced by Zoe Hartland, Peedie Productions’ performance of A.A. Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall, with music by H. Fraser-Simson, is at once heartwarming and hilarious, delivering its promises of “nostalgic joy, comedy, and warmth”. Toad of Toad Hall, true to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, is a story about friendships, nature, childhood simplicity and wonder and, of course, Toad’s chaos.

As the audience streamed in, they were greeted by Marigold (Cathy Scoon) and Nurse (Kat Surgay) relaxing on a picnic mat. There was green lighting, idyllic music and the sounds of nature filling the Pilch – it is to Keira Cummig, Tilly Jackson-Long and Zoe Adams’ credit that the opening scene was set so perfectly. As Marigold rang Rat on a flower and attempted to explain to Nurse what she was doing, we were introduced to the animals through the lens of childhood innocence: “they’re as human to themselves, as we are to us!”

The Pilch’s space was used especially well – its intimacy allowed the audience to become part of the story’s world. The Policeman (Lorna Campbell) gestured to audience members that they were being watched; the performers sat among the audience during the court scene; and the Wild Wooders hid in the corners of the room, their voices coming from all around, accentuating a sense of danger. The simplicity of the set was also extremely apt – it set the scene without feeling unnatural, something that was also supported by the use of sound.

Although this production was not a musical, the tunes of the play certainly shone, and credit must be given to pianist James Morrell and Beth ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick (who played Toad, and was also the music director). Fitzpatrick’s delivery of Toad’s songs captured Toad’s smugness aptly, whilst The Wild Wooders – led by the Chief Weasel (Elliot Wood) – hauntingly sang “Down with Toad!”, giving the audience a sense of foreboding. 

Rapidly, we were drawn into Mole’s (Wren Talbot-Ponsonby) world. Talbot-Ponsonby portrayed Mole’s innocence, shyness, and genuineness. One could not help but marvel at the river together with Mole, who had hitherto not seen one. Maybe this is the power of children’s literature, and productions of such – to give a freshness and make us reconsider things we are accustomed to. Mole’s satisfaction with the sandwiches, generosity towards and love for the carolers, and care for Rat were endearing. Rat (played by Matt Sheldon) was equally memorable. Sheldon portrayed the affection and concern Rat had for his friends well: “tell me about Mole End”, was delivered in an undeniably comforting manner. The scene in which Mole and Rat listened to the carolers together painted a perfect picture of tenderness.

Fitzpatrick’s Toad and Antonia Anstatt’s Badger had the audiences laughing at multiple junctures. The comedy Becky Tekleyesus’ Alfred (who often “wasn’t even consulted!”) brought to the stage also cannot be overlooked. One of the most memorable moments had to be an exchange between Toad and Badger: Toad enquired how Badger was doing, and Badger replied with “so so”, to which Toad reacted with “splendid”. Anstatt’s Badger also repeatedly mentioned, “I knew his father. I knew his grandfather. I knew his uncle, the archdeacon”, evoking laughter every single time, a testament to Anstatt’s strong performance. Fitzpatrick’s performance was extremely impressive, embodying Toad’s glee and flair for the dramatic. The scene where Toad pretended to drive and fake a crash was executed wonderfully – Fitzpatrick fell with the chair and landed perfectly. Also, how many people can dance while standing on a chair, and still convey exuberance? 

In short, Toad of Toad Hall featured a strong cast: Adam Craig’s Judge, Cillian Manning’s Harold/Weasel, Adam Paterson’s Usher/Chief Ferret and Alex Evers’ Washerwoman successfully captivated audiences if the laughter in the room was anything to go by. The execution of the fight scene (coordinated by Alice Owen) was also brilliant – sheer comedy.

This production of Toad of Toad Hall was, indeed, “poetry in motion”. Like Mole, I’m sure many could not help but leave the theatre thinking: “Oh, what a day!”