As Rufus Hound says, plenty of people love a frog; Toad, of Toad Hall fame, is most definitely not a frog.
He’s a toad, and that’s the whole point – though a toad with ultimately the potential to reform.
All will be revealed in the brand-new musical version of Kenneth Grahame’s classic Wind in the Willows which comes to Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre from November 10-20 (tickets 02380 711811).
The show comes with impeccable credentials – Oscar-winning screenwriter and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Olivier Award-winning composer and lyricist team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Rufus will be slipping into the toad skin as the hero of the piece – a role which, as he acknowledges, comes with plenty of expectations.
“Everyone will have an answer for what is Toad like, what is he supposed to be. Everyone has an expectation about how he should be and how it should feel. All I can say is that there are two sides to Toad, and one side is his background of enormous privilege.”
People imagine that having an enormous house and pots of money must be good, all good. Rufus suggests it can in fact be hugely alienating, which is what he believes has happened to Toad. Grow up with that degree of wealth, and you can start to believe that other people are simply obstacles in your way – again, exactly what has happened to Toad, who has come to see relationships as transactional rather than mutual, Rufus says.
“He has become incredibly vain and self-serving… but that’s because he has never really had the good things himself. He doesn’t know how to alter his behaviour. And that’s why he is a toad. Nobody loves toads. Just the word toad is shorthand for something that by its very nature is unlikeable…”
Helping him show the character and the course the character goes on is the music of Stiles and Drewe: “The lyrics are very clever and very sharply put together. Just on the one level you can see that there are six levels at play. The words are also very witty, and there is something very special about the music that George writes. He seems to have something timeless about it. There is something magical about it. George has an amazing ability to bypass anything that is faddy or trendy and to write something that is immediately warm and familiar and classic and classy and that works across all the different genres.”
For Rufus, part also of the pleasure is to be working with director Rachel Kavanaugh who has just directed Half A Sixpence in Chichester: “The best you can say about a director is that Rachel gives you exactly what you need in as few words as possible. The more empowered you feel as an actor, the better you will be. I am not saying you will be the best, but the more empowered you feel, the more you will be the best you can be.”
Talking of Chichester, Rufus’ stage credits include Neville's Island at the CFT a few years ago, in fact in the year in which the CFT was a massive marquee during the main house’s refurbishment. There were just the two shows in the temporary theatre, and Neville’s Island comprehensively upstaged Barnum for which it had been built.
Barnum had well over a thousand seats available, but for Neville’s Island temporary walls were brought in to make it well under a thousand for the four-hander Rufus and the three others were doing. Their satisfaction was seeing those temporary walls successively coming out as the audiences grew.
“Barnum never really took off. It was a bit of a wash-out, and we ended up doing much better than they did.”
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