Reviewed by Alex Foott
Splashing about in the wake of its critically acclaimed run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sincerely, Mr Toad flings forth its fresh-faced cast to show us the rather unexplored story of one of Britain’s most celebrated writers. Sell A Door Theatre Company’s latest work is an ambitious biopic of Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame. Demonstrating the artistes’ age-old maxim of drawing inspiration from one’s surroundings, it is a wondrous journey through both the realities and fantasies of Grahame’s turbulent life.
The story centres around Kenneth Grahame and his relationship with his scholarly challenged son Alastair. Visually impaired and socially reluctant, Alastair is given the endearing nickname ‘Mouse’. We are introduced to the ebullient and mischievous Beth, a girl who has recently moved to the town. She beguiles Mouse with her uninhibited honesty and, slowly but surely, wins his affections. However, Mouse frequently struggles at school and is universally reprimanded. When he is inexplicably accepted into Oxford University, the stress of this new situation exacerbates his erratic behaviour and his family are dragged down as he spirals into a depression.
The cast are undeniably gifted, displaying sleek choreography, spine-tingling close harmonies and a respect for the period of the piece. They appropriately twist themselves into caricatures and construct various tableaux bursting with heightened expression. Kirsty Marie Ayers, as Beth, sets the bar at the start of the piece, producing a truly mesmerising prologue. She continually triumphs throughout the story, offering refreshing spikes of energy as she bounds across the stage. Deftly altering her mannerisms to portray the passage of time, she serves as a helpful marker to guide us through the otherwise confusing plot. Equally enchanting is Sarah Borges in her presentation of Alastair’s mother, Elspeth. Her connection to the pervading gloom that hounds her family is positively harrowing and her soaring contralto carries the emotion of the piece with aplomb.
Stylistically, Sincerely, Mr Toad is a little disjointed. Given that this is a biographical piece, there seems to be a period that should be obeyed. While the songs are individually impressive, they vary in their myriad musical styles including rock, contemorary musical theatre and Broadway. This, paired with the rather patronising lyrics of countless melodramatic soliloquies, prevents us from fully sympathising with the characters. The second act is undoubtedly the stronger of the two with a stirring quartet creating much needed harmony between the cast and the directorial style. If the music was reworked to create a uniformly folk-style soundtrack, this could be a very charming show enjoyable for young and old alike.
Sincerely, Mr Toad – Sell A Door Theatre Company
Book by David Hutchinson
Music by David Andrew Wilson
Lyrics by Katie McIvor
Performance date – Tues 10th September 2013