Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

willows top

Scenes among the willows with Rat (Chris Gilbey-Smith) and Toad (Craig Shelton), left, while on the river Rat, again, punts along with Mole (Lucy Maxwell)

The Wind in the Willows

Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa


Is it possible to lavish too much praise on the Loft Theatre Company? I think not. Time and again, as with this The Wind in the Willows, I wing my way over to Leamington Spa for what I hope will be at the very least a sizzling occasion, soaring over the footlights and shared with me and the loyal audience by a fine amateur theatre company - only to find their plays prove far more than that: with the Loft I feel in the arms of a genuinely Professional outfit.

Nor was I in the least disappointed with this production of Alan Bennett’s stage adaptation of his original radio play, published by Faber in 1996 and based on Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 delightful, somewhat appropriately spoof children’s book.

The Loft, founded in 1922, originally in Warwick, and taking to the stage from 1923, will celebrate its centenary next year, an impressive achievement, and particularly welcome. Curiously of their productions between 1923 and 1926 only two plays – George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – remain distinctive in our principal national repertoire. Eight of those others have virtually hit the dust, although J. M. Barrie (Dear Brutus) and Noël Coward (Hay Fever) joined the mix in 1929.

Still performing then largely at Leamington College (the town’s Grammar School), but also three or four local venues including the Town Hall, before the name ‘Loft’ emerged, initially in Bedford Street the other side of the River Leam, and later the present theatre, The Loft inaugurated its Shakespeare productions – let’s surmise the quality was already there – with The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado (1927 and 1931), the latter of which is one of the first to have photographs surviving in the company’s Archive (although just two black and white photographs); and not again till Shaw’s The Apple Cart which rounded off 1933, and of four stagings, including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in 1935 . The first years all, or nearly all, productions seem to have been photographed, or which pictures survive, were 1941 and 1944.  However nearly all of the cast lists can be found dating back to the first in 1923. (ARCHIVE

Feverish is the word, for by then the number of plays per season had risen, often, to as many as 12 in one year (1933) and 13 (1934).

And – a huge hurrah - this autumn, a hundred years on, to anticipate its centenary, The Loft will do lots for Education, by launching a new Youth Theatre, which it believes may draw in as many as 360 children A WEEK for performing or backstage experience. Talk about a milestone.

Coming up next at this very intimate and acoustically attractive riverside venue (Dave Barclay oversees the lighting, and sometimes more), is The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood (Wednesday 8th to Saturday 18th September), their spooky image of which looks disturbingly like Benjamin Britten’s (and Henry James’) The Turn of the Screw, and which was originally scheduled for Spring 2020 but had to be cancelled after only one performance; then Howard Brenton’s award-winning Anne Boleyn, which I hope isn’t as gory as his The Romans penned for Richard Eyre’s National Theatre (Wednesday 20th to Saturday 30th October); and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company - the Loft can stage Musicals, and not just Oliver, but West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Piaf, Into the Woods and much more – galvanisingly, indeed electrifyingly (Wednesday 1st to Saturday 11th December.).


Albert the Horse (Mark Crossley), with Mole and Toad in the distance

The adventures of Mr. Toad, or rather The Wind in the Willows, typifies both the range of its repertoire and the phenomenal talent The Loft manages to recruit and deploy. Over recent years it has proved its conspicuous (and enviable) excellence with the Welsh (Under Milk Wood twice); the Irish (O’Casey, Synge); the American (Miller’s The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, All My Sons); the Swiss-Austro-German (The Physicists, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Woyzeck, Mother Courage and her Children); the Scandinavians (Ghosts, A Doll’s House, Miss Julie), the Russians (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The House with the Mezzanine, a Chekhov short story scripted by David Fletcher).

Add to these a welter of excellence: the tragi-comic (The Entertainer, twice, Scrooge),the  emotionally tensioned laments for lost youth (actor David Haig’s incredibly tragic My Boy Jack, in which he and Daniel Radcliffe - Harry Potter – originally starred; and current Company chairman, the mightily experienced writer-director David Fletcher’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, drawing on the poems and also letters, mostly written to his mother Susan, of Wilfred Owen; the touching and socially aware (The Pitmen Painters, The Accrington Pals, Brassed Off), the historical (Collaborators, The Mayerling Affair, Saint Joan, The Trial of Queen Caroline, The Ballad of Lady Bessy, Nell Gwynn, Mary Stuart, and their forthcoming Anne Boleyn).

Add the nostalgic (Old Times); the small cast (The Caretaker, The River, David Fletcher’s The Silence, Mike Bartlett’s double bill An Intervention, Mindgame), the edge-of-seat (Witness for the Prosecution), the scary (The Innocents, The Exorcism); the grotesquely funny (Glorious, Amadeus), the raunchy (Privates on Parade twice, Entertaining Mr. Sloane), the joyous  (Godspell, Scrooge), the tragic teenage (Equus, three times), comic (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole) or outrageous teens (The History Boys), plus a host of modern plays including Italy’s late Dario Fo, Spain’s Lorca (Blood Wedding), Emile Zola’s (originally French) Thérèse Raquin and well over a dozen Shakespeare, including the late (and rare) Pericles twice and – amazingly for an amateur company – King Lear.

The Loft’s energy, now under the Artistic Direction of Sue Moore, one of its finest actors/actresses (I remember with especial pleasure her The History Boys (Mis Lintott, or ‘Totty’) and Under Milk Wood (narrating Second Voice, opposite the company’s elder statesman, Jeremy Heynes. Sue was able to enlighten me on the appalling delays, financial agonies and impossibility of rehearsing caused by the damnable Covid – even worse than I had feared. Their very survival is greatly to be admired, and their current resurrection is to be wondered at.

Thus the Loft seems insuppressible, and The Wind in the Willows, with its numerous droll moments, was a typical example of the vital way its company works together, and of the inventiveness of both its members - every single performer – and of Director Robert Lowe (not the American actor), whose pacing never flagged for one minute, and who set the whole Alan Bennett farrago afire.

Actually, although this is their first visiting of Alan Bennett’s version, The Loft has staged an earlier version, presumably A.A. Milne’s 1929 adaptation, of Toad of Toad Hall no less than five times (1971, 1977, 1981, 1990 AND 2002). Bennett’s book (text) was launched by The National Theatre as its Christmas Show in 1990 with Richard Briers as Rat, Griff Rhys Jones as Toad and the wonderful John Nettleton (Yes Minister); then filmed in 1995 with Bennett himself as Mole and Michael Gambon as Toad, and revived as a radio play (adapted by others) with Bennett again as Mole, Michael Gambon as Badger, Michael Palin as Rat and Rik Mayall as a vociferous Toad.


Mark Roberts, a wise, noble and commanding Badger and a wonderful performance from Lucy Maxwell as Mole

In this Loft production both the cast and the direction were to die for, really. Let me start unexpectedly with Lucy Maxwell’s ultra-shy, Yorkshire lass Mole. She’s actually a star of Musicals, both here and elsewhere: no one could call her a shrinking violet. Yet here – and her character emerged and impressed not instantly but gradually, by stages - her caution (not exactly Alice in Wonderland’s Dormouse, but heading that way became more and more touching (‘I’ve never had a friend before’). Given the restraint that must have entailed, as when her moving farewell to the others setting off for war, I see her as one of this show’s very definite successes.

The triumph of the whole evening – by a mile, it could be argued – was Mark Crossley’s bizarre, fetlocked, tuba-wielding, ‘trusty’ Albert the horse, who, shorn of any strong allegiance to either side, Weasels or Toad, and despite supposedly understanding only ‘Whoa!’ and ‘Gee up’, seemed to have a better idea of what was going on than any of the others: to a degree one was reminded of Boxer, the wise old nag in Animal Farm, although luckily Albert doesn’t get shipped off to the knackers’ yard. Everything Crossley came up with – and there was loads of shrewd, indeed masterly, invention here - produced pure joy and oodles of laughs; gold, in fact. And his infectious ability to turn an open stage remark into a disgraceful aside to the audience was utterly hilarious: pure stand-up comic. Crossley – paradoxically, a fantastic Samuel Parris in Miller’s The Crucible - sure can play a crowd -

Those Weasels (Vicky Holding a frighteningly commanding – for that read bossy – Chief Weasel, her ugly head twitching from side to side, and Weasel Norman – why Norman?? – with flickering whiskers Ed Griffiths; no Stoat in AB’s cast), abetted by Ferret Claire Bradwell, of course had a field day. Even when cheerfully doubling as set-movers, they constantly emitted an eerie, unpleasant sniffing or hissing noise, really creepy, as if to say ‘Watch out, it’s us who rule the roost’, or to put it differently, ‘We’re the grotesquely unpleasant ones.’ The main scampering came from them, usually very effective, just occasionally too repetitive and in need of an extra directorial idea or two.

Ed Griffiths also played Otter in a kind of stentorian Rik Mayall overtone, rather successful (the

Again, caring around for notable talent (and characterisation), one alights on two especially homely working-class old fogeys. Elaine Freeman as the Bargewoman (read bag-lady), to whose life the river is of course as crucial as to Ratty, Toad etc.; and Jeremy Heynes, an absolute hoot as the very fat or suspiciously overclad Washerwoman, who generously if reluctantly yields up her outer attire for Craig Shelton’s outrageous but here solicitous, self-pitying Toad (‘poor little Toady’) to make his getaway from jail, revealing some pretty disgusting unwashed bloomers to the delight of the audience.

The classic escape, was abetted by a beautifully touching and besotted gaoler’s daughter Claire Bradwell again. Meanwhile Heynes, J. had already taken on the Magistrate’s role (Stephen Fry in some 1990s versions), which he rendered as dotty, brainless, incompetent and easy to bribe as Peter Cook ludicrous spluttering Judge, or indeed totally doddery Harold MacMillan, in Beyond the Fringe.


The Loft's next production, The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood (Wednesday 8th to Saturday 18th September)

The costumes by the two Helens, Brady and Jellicoe, added as much as anything: Albert’s multifarious bits of clinking harness were another hoot; vivid reds (plus joyous orange boots) for Zoe Mortimer’s Gypsy, when she wasn’t evoking prickly Hedgehog, oily Motorist or uniformed Fuzz; or Roberts’ ever-wise Badger’s amazing black, grey and red dressing-gown-like rig.

Not to mention Shelton’s over-confident but now unusually subdued Toad’s gloomy prison garb, and above all, upon recovery his colander-codpieced, all-metal bravado outfit in preparation for battling the weasels: the latter was side-splitting; or the swirling red tail of Zoe Mortimer’s all too briefly encountered Fox; and Heynes, in his fatuous, enveloping wig and clumsily donned scarlet gear benefited from the pair’s highly successful efforts all round as much as anybody. My, how we laughed, many clutching their sides as if holding in hernias.

Toad himself acquired a magnificent outfit of (in medieval terms) green hose with typically resplendent necktie. The same could be said for many of the multicoloured Props (Zoe Skinner): the goggle-wearing Toad’s crazy car (‘Motor cars re my life’); a cosy-looking caravan; a rather wonderful, funny barge floating on stage right; and Laura Simmons exchanging Rabbit for her (like Mole, West/South Yorkshire – i.e. Sheffield upwards - accent) splendid red & yellow handkerchief Train Driver (chugging along a curling wide-gauge track snaking on from stage left) were among numerous treasurable moments, although I did wish in this day of technical wizardry and wi-fi control her happy train could perhaps have at least partly chuffed past the red signal on its own.

Chris Gilbey-Smith’s very personable Rat, dispensing endless good cheer, kindness and bonhomie, sporting a sailor’s apron echoed by the entire furnishings of his rat-riverbank-apartment, and beautifully spoken from start to finish, despite a fractionally Amateur Theatreish opening, was in charge for much of the time, possibly a drawback in Bennett’s mostly clever yet I felt not overwhelming script, for surely the acute, almost Tolkienesque wisdom of an impressively Falstaffian Badger (Mark Roberts) could have been more fully used, emerging primarily later on and exercising an almost awesome authority when he reassumes command. (Bennett himself was of course a famous Mole.)

The river was evoked not so much onstage as in a magnificent, indeed overawing backdrop (Designer: Richard Moore) covering the whole of rear stage: vast foliage, more dark than light greens, with a particularly well-judged (post 1987 hurricane?) fallen tree and another large broken stump. All this evoked, indeed imposed, a kind of Wild Wood in which one could imagine those biting, teeth-grinding, almost clucking, tut-tutting, or tittering, horrible Weasels springing many a nasty ambush. It lent atmosphere, and at times an ominous feel, to everything played in front of it onstage. And of course ‘Beyond the wild wood is the wide world - and that’s a topic we try not to mention.’ Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is indeed compressed into its own intimate, private world, created by a patch of unnamed river: I daresay one could say much the same about the setting(s) for Alice’s hole leading to the March Hare and the White Queen, or in a way for the boating kids in Swallows and Amazons. That’s part of the beauty of it.

Jonathan Fletcher’s largely keyboard score was sometimes unentrancing, but he was severely limited by Covid and the chance of other live players, and his earlier scene where he employed single woodwind were, intermittently, all but mesmerising, and a later stage where he evoked what sounded like double woodwind easily the best of all.

Variety in set came with the charming designs for Rat’s homely hideout, and a delightful view of Toad Hall: Toad could indeed allude without undue pomposity to ‘This England of ours’ And how one relished hearing a genuine take-off broad Dudley (or Black Country) accent: was it him, or rather one of the girls? (My scrupulous but in the dark illegible notes don’t say).

I noticed at one point Bennett’s script, occasionally versey, verged on (say) Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and I dare suggest other parallels (or sources) might be spotted and pointed out too. It can certainly. Although the text also, I would argue, allocates not quite enough of bravado to Craig Shelton’s guitar-strumming Toad (‘not Frog’, he snaps), we half-believe the fat stinker’s final undertaking to turn over a new leaf.

Great fun and much polish from The Loft; one is not surprised.

Roderic Dunnett


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