Whenever our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, fancies a nostalgic trip back to a long lost England, she heads for Coulsdon, where this week there’s a summer production of a gem from the Edwardian era
So it was that one evening this week, I made my way to the Coulsdon Manor Hotel, where I am told that a woman who once stood up to Hitler used to practise her golf.
Fortunately, given the recent heatwave, on arrival I was able to go to the 19th hole where I acquired a deliciously iced G&T (a large one, of course), before making this, my by now annual visit to the Theatre Workshop Coulsdon for their summer production, and a nostalgic look back to a long lost England with all its uncertainties, foibles and fears that can resonate back to the modern day.
Last year, Dick Barton And The Slaves Of The Sultan referred back to inter-war Home Service radio England. This time, and with a run that extends throughout next week, the drama group take us to the Edwardian delights of the river bank. There being absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats with Wind In The Willows. Or dodging the occasional stray golf ball.
The setting, in a copse by the 10th fairway, works really well for this play, even with the distraction of an occasional pair in plus-fours playing through on twilight rates. Local timber merchant Dunwoody’s products serve the company very well.
It is nearly 30 years since Alan Bennett’s National Theatre revival of Kenneth Grahame’s classic story, and it has inspired countless productions since, not least with the ingenuity of staging the riverbank scenes. In Coulsdon’s version, the costumes are gorgeous and the props of caravan, car, train and boat are a marvel in construction and imagination; in the case of the boat, it’s close to a mystery in how it gets across a grass surface.
The production is presented as the classic children’s tale, but is able to tell a more adult story without grotesque double entendre. Yes, there is an English obsession with flatulence from the excellently put-upon cart horse Albert, played by northern accented Simeon Dawes, but the exploitative nature of the Ratty/Mole relationship is only gently hinted at.
Mike Brown carries on from last summer in being powerfully confident in his role as Badger and after some early rushed lines Richard Lloyd is appropriately expansive as Toad.
Joe Wilson, as Ratty, is once again a well-studied deliverer of a cut-glass accent to place the story firmly back to pre-First World War England.
Although these nostalgia trips might be disturbing to ears younger than mine, the cast does pull off the trick of painting a vivid portrait of a bourgeois set of chaps disturbed by the rebellious underclass of weasels and stoats in the wild wood.
I can’t quite remember it myself, but even a hundred years ago there was class war of a kind, when a less-cultured, working-class accent was deemed to be in some manner a threat. There is chanted hate speech, too, in, “We don’t like moles! They belong in holes!”
Bruce Montgomery as the Chief Weasel is deliciously threatening. Hannah Montgomery playing a support role this year was still eminently noticeable as an admirably cackling Wildwooder.
Even though Mole is played by Anya Destiny, which perhaps dilutes the impact a touch, there is a condescension in the piece to women, in looking down at the Washer, Gypsy and Barge women.
The bourgeois-dominated nature of the judiciary in the possible lenient treatment of Toad has resonance through the notoriously biased Thorpe trial judge, Justice Joseph Cantley, to the modern-day magistrates’ court. Here, the performance was well-judged (geddit?!) by Tim Young as the Magistrate.
Then there is the threat to the idealised country idyll from Toad’s conspicuous consumption and unhealthy obsession with cars. A most apposite story for the local 20mph speed restriction opponents, even for Coulsdon resident Peter Morgan. Poot poot!
Thus this is a play for all the family, as evident by an audience with young people in the front row and grandparents behind them. Maybe a 7.45pm start is a bit late when it creates an after-10pm finish for the toddlers present.
There’s that, and the added excitement of the pre-performance announcement that stepping beyond the blue wire marking out the stage could lead to electrocution…
One thing I did find a trifle tiresome was in being treated as if some sort of economy passenger with the dreadful Ryanair. As if! Having not brought a deckchair with me on my journey to the theatre – well, would you? – after showing my ticket, I was expected to pay for my chair, or be forced to sit on the bone-hard ground. At my age?!
First night nerves must have struck when I was there, too, affecting even the more accomplished and experienced members of the cast. At one point, Badger was supposed to be asking Mole and Ratty whether “They had had a little shock.” Perhaps dry-mouthed in the heat, the actor found himself uttering a four-letter word which also began with “sh”.
I nearly spilled my drink, though many of the children present had a good laugh. Perhaps they’ll keep it in through the rest of the run.
The season continues tonight and from Tuesday July 31 until August 4, with signs from the golf course car park to the site. Golf buggies are available for the less ambulant or fun-loving, although it’s really not so far to the 10th fairway, and I was able to make the journey in my heels in less than 15 minutes. The shows start at 7.45pm.
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