It is always a delight to attend a performance at Tolethorpe Hall. Home of the Stamford Shakespeare Company this unique venue comprises a genuine Elizabethan manor house, a picturesque knot garden, and a meadow for picnicking - before you descend the stone steps towards the woodland glade in which the plays are performed.
With such a charming pre-show environment it’s easy to assume that the quality of the production is somehow of secondary importance, but far from it. The Company makes huge efforts to ensure that its performances are as lavish and professional as possible. And moving into the covered marquee and viewing the charming set for Wind in the Willows only increased the feeling of enchantment.
Amazingly the set for this performance includes a realistic river with two boats floating on it. Not to mention a winding road sporting a Gypsy caravan, a veteran car, a Bath chair, and a full-sized steam loco! Costumes are another area where the Company pushes the boat out, and it was delightful to see faithful reproductions of the deerstalkers, plus-fours, and smoking jackets that graced the Edwardian era when Kenneth Grahame’s book was originally written.
Also extremely successful was the blocking by director Steve Whittaker of the large company of rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, weasels, and even the occasional human being. This important aspect of the play was particularly effective in the trial scene where Ollie Plumley as the be-wigged Magistrate and Peter Stauntson as his Clerk delivered judgement.
Other splendid cameos came from a brilliantly costumed Fox played by Richard Byron-White, who earlier in the play had emerged dripping from the river in his other role as Otter. As Albert the horse Peter Lockett received plenty of well-deserved laughs, and when Lydia Hemmings (the Gaoler’s Daughter) and Jane Sims (the Washerwoman) were on stage together there was some hilarious cross-dressing. In contrast Steve Kisby made a splendidly sinister Chief Weasel.
Which leaves us with the four famous heroes, known and loved by generations of children of all ages. As Ratty Tom Westall pretty well held the long first act together, with an incisive stage presence and admirably clear diction. His new friend Mole played by John Saunders was at his best disguised as the Washerwoman when threatening the weasels with retribution. While Badger was given a slightly subdued but dignified performance by Mike Harrison.
Inevitably it was Mr Toad (Steve Cunningham) who stole the show, from his first raucous entry to some superb cavorting in a conga-type curtain-call which ended all too soon. Whether as a dangerous motorist, an invalid, a prisoner at the bar, or a returning Ulysses, Steve worked hard for every one of the multitude of laughs.
Review : Joe Conway