Reprinted from the Henley Herald 08/2021
Hopping Good Riverside Show With Mr Toad & His Friends
The stunning riverside garden of Peel Fold on Mill Lane was the perfect backdrop for the Kenton’s Wind in the Willows outdoor show performed by the Dorchester Amateur Dramatics Society which ran from Thursday to Saturday last week.
Peel Fold owners, Alan and Carol Pontin had set the scene for the show with a small fishing boat on their stream next to which was a laid out picnic at the entrance to their enchanted garden. They had also borrowed a large Toad model from the River & Rowing Museum.
The fantastic cast of six, retold the classic Kenneth Grahame story with superb acting from all throughout the fun production from the opening scene when young Amelie White playing Ratty met Mole on the riverbank right through to the end when the animals helped Toad reclaim Toad Hall. The larger than life Toad was played brilliantly by Kate Phillips and cast members Christine Jones, Ian Brace and Russell Bailey effortlessly transformed into many different characters and costumes. We particularly liked Ian as Arnold the caravan horse and Christine as the stolen car owner.
The show captivated the audience with a funny and fresh adaptation written by Philip Dart including a reference to Covid times (no spoilers here). Our favourite scene was the hilarious police chase after Toad escaped from prison. The staging was first class too with clever designed scenery and props. Ratty’s rowing boat, Toad’s car, caravan and train were the best props we’d seen in an amateur dramatics show.
(Spoiler alert) The Toad Comes Home
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact upon the performing arts but the members of Dorchester Amateur Dramatics Society (DADS) have kept themselves entertained with regular online play readings.
Back in February it was agreed to schedule a production of The Wind in the Willows in Dorchester Abbey’s Cloister Gardens from 22 to 24 July. It was an inspired choice in so many ways which resulted in memorable outings for audiences who were celebrating the end of a year of ‘lockdown’ restrictions.
Of course, an outdoor show presents its own special challenges, but Mark Wilkin, who both directed and produced, was joined by a talented team of designers, constructors and painters who created a set which fitted beautifully into its stunning location.
Thanks to skilful choreography, the small cast of six was able to make the most of these surroundings. Their movements were not confined to the built structures and the free-ranging action so embraced the audience that everyone could feel involved.
Indeed, during the performance which we attended it seemed that even the wind in the surrounding trees was being controlled by the production team, which further contributed to the embracing atmosphere.
There would have been few members of the audience who did not already know the story of The Wind in the Willows – (Spoiler Alert: Toad Comes Home) – but there is huge entertainment value in watching the performances of a small number of people meeting the challenge of playing a large number of well-known characters within the constraints of a (probably very) limited budget.
The ingenuity of the creators of the boat, the car, and the locomotive (Colin Newton, Ed Metcalfe, and Michael Herbert) should therefore be much admired along with the skills of those providing, props, puppets and costumes (Carol-Anne Tilley, Elaine Williams and Ann Winslet)
From the moment that Weasel (Ian Brace) threatened the audience with unspeakable punishments if they failed to turn off their mobile phone and take their litter home, every member of the cast turned in performances that were confident, competent and topical – fist-bumping and elbow-touching replaced traditional paw-shakes.
Where costume changes were required, they were quickly and effectively achieved, giving rise to the expectation that a whole army of stoats and weasels must be helping out backstage until a quick reference to the programme revealed that for each member of the cast it was strictly d-i-y.
Ratty (Amelie White) and Mole (Christine Jones) get the story going in their charming opening scene before introducing Toad (Kate Phillips) but the action is regularly interrupted by Weasel and Stoat (Rosemary Mills), who is scary enough on her own to represent a whole gang of such creatures.
Toad’s caravan horse, ‘Arnold’, is also played by Ian Brace, who then appears as Judge and Engine Driver, while Russell Bailey completes the team as Badger, Prosecution Counsel and Prison Warder.
Christine Jones also appears as the Chief Witness against Toad, the Jailer’s Daughter and still finds time to join Amelie White and Rosemary Mills as the chasing police team when Toad escapes from prison – a hilarious slow-motion canter through the Cloister Gardens.
Kate Phillips conveyed all of Toad’s failings but still managed to make him lovable and the whole cast seemed to enjoy the show which is entirely appropriate as they gave so much pleasure to their audiences. In a first for DADS the entire production went ‘on tour’ and on the following weekend performed on the bank of even bigger river at Henley-on-Thames.
The evening was a wonderful way to start the journey back to normality. It was memorable in many ways, not least for the very high standard of all the performances in such a delightful location, but also because of the opportunity to share the experience with fellow members of the audience.
To all those members of DADS who have worked so hard in such difficult circumstances: thank you!