For most people the mention of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless classic The Wind in the Willows evokes warm childhood recollections of gentle bedtime stories. Furry animals whiling away their days on rivers and a flamboyant, mischievous toad causing regular mayhem.
Few, however, are aware of the extraordinary tale behind this much-celebrated book and it's this that is the subject of David Gooderson’s The Killing of Mr Toad. The opening scene introduces Grahame’s widow, Elspeth. Living alone, she barely eats and barely washes, spending her days reminiscing, taking delivery of letters and gifts from admirers of her late husband’s work and talking to his photograph.
Her wandering thoughts soon translate into a full-blown musical celebration of The Wind in the Willows, its four principal characters expertly portrayed by the male members of the company. Animals then morph into humans as the story of the Grahames’ meeting, courtship and eventual marriage unfolds.
Both Elizabeth Counsell and Jeffrey Perry give stellar performances as the protagonists with Perry’s transition from nervous, subservient Mole to Grahame, his childlike creator, a real joy to behold. The marriage is not a happy one; sexually unresponsive, emotionally aloof, and often away from home, Grahame lives in a world of fantasy and ‘private’ dreams which exclude his wife.
They do, however, produce a son. Alastair, affectionately nicknamed ‘Mouse'. He's born blind in one eye and although his parents dote on him, they neglect him, sending him away to school, failing to visit on his birthday or to acknowledge other important events. Despite this he has a wayward, headstrong nature, demonstrating his regular disappointments to his parents through exuberant play-acting and bouts of song. It is the boisterous, fun-loving character of his young son which inspires Grahame’s creation of his most famous and beloved fictional character.
Leo Conville is outstanding throughout, seamlessly evolving from the swaggering, pretentious Toad into young Mouse, portraying his early childhood and troubled stages of his adolescence with ease. This is a young man who fails to fit in; eccentric and academically and socially unsuccessful, he undergoes unproductive stints at Eton and Oxford University, before finally committing suicide on a railway track three days before his 20th birthday.
Her son’s death is recorded as accidental, but the question of the true circumstances plagues Elspeth for the rest of her life. Counsell really shines here; from the stricken howl of the bereaved mother to her gentle, continuing search for the truth at the end of the piece, she effortlessly evokes real pathos.
Unusual, imaginative and superbly acted, this is a wonderful theatrical experience. At times extremely funny, at others deeply touching, it achieves exactly the right balance of humour and tragedy and works particularly well in the intimacy of the Finborough.
- Helen Macdonald