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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Written by Christine Foster and directed by Margot Jobbins. Technical Design, Publicity Tom Jobbins, Lit by the Rialto team. Stage Manager Pat Bryant.

Till October 6th and touring. Please consult website of 4 Tails.


How innocence sours to despair, acclaim to agony. Christine Foster’s Lost in the Willows comes from behind the man behind the book, shows whispers rise to shrieks.

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) was denied study at Oxford by his stepfather but became Secretary to the Governor of the Bank of England. Famed more for writing a couple of bestsellers in the mid-late 1890s that caught everyone’s attention including President Theodore Roosevelt, he’s best-known for The Wind in the Willows after ten years of writing nothing, in 1908.

There’s an orchestral tone poem by Arnold Bax from 1917, November Woods, where howling storm strips the trees pointing to human love rent and remade. That’s not unlike the background to this otherwise quiet play, where everything seems to whisper. Till it doesn’t.

There’s Grahame‘s marriage to fey but would-be-earthy Elspeth, and their troubled son Alistair, the original for Toad in his father’s novel. It’s more than just a complex telling, that’s a given. It’s also more nuanced, and ultimately pulls the grass from under your feet.

Neil James’ Kenneth Grahame is a man of nervous amicability, confiding yet inwardly fidgety, even if certainly not in demeanour. Neil conveys the physical awkwardness of Grahame, especially the squirm away from kissing or sexual contact. It’s a beautifully fraught centring of a man’s being beside his physical self, dreaming elsewhere. Foster supplies all sorts of phallic tripwires in his narration, subtle humour to turn laughter.

Neil even looks the part with moustache and relating a circular narrative ‘I’m not Mr Toad’ or other animals. We find out why he says this of course, at the end. Brought up by his uncle after his mother’s death and father’s desolate drunkenness, he’s denied the chance to study at Oxford and at 20 in 1879 becomes a gentleman clerk at the Bank of England.

Laura Fausner first takes the role of Helen, Kenneth’s over-protective, possessive sister, daughter and spinster of the manse, fussing, acting as barrier against women or the outside world. You can see how the guarded adolescent becomes the man. It’s a nuanced stifling. Elsewhere Fausner plays a gallimaufry of supportive roles from nannies to editors, with contrasts of brightness, turning a wick up and down – particularly bright for eager editors, more soberly for English nannies looking after offstage (but at one point vocally articulate) Alistair. Gliding in and out with degrees of discretion and eagerness, it’s a fine supporting performance.

The only notable event in Graham’s time at the bank comes after a succession of Robert Cohen’s characters, one unhinged George Robinson who happens to pull a gun and shoot at Grahame three times. The outfall of that is certainly complex. Elsewhere Cohen plays a series of dour and amusing men with a raised eyebrow through to saturnine inflection: from strict uncle through truculent colleagues through to avuncular Q.

This is (later Sir) Arthur Quiller-Couch, then famed for his plays, his short stories and finally his Oxford Book of English Verse (1918) and (later, 1927) The Art of Reading. Meeting at Foye in Cornwall, where Grahame was up for a rest cure and already admired for his The Golden Age (mistaken for a gilt-edged securities tome by some) A larger-than-life hearty, he introduces Grahame to the shady delights of sailing and outdoors men – with offstage characters and Q’s own son soon to win Oxford and military distinction. It’s a man’s sporting life, though he’s happily married with a son eight years older than Alistair, and seems to have none of Grahame’s hang-ups. Cohen renders Q a quizzical man, commenting from the sidelines without, one feels, the desire to enquire too closely. Q though shudders on his won griefs, and Cohen visibly shrinks him to a pallid shuffle of his former strut.

Abi McLoughlin most of all carries the burden of fey-seeming but passionate spinster ‘already 35’ – Grahame’s 38 when they meet – and thus considered by Helen as predatory and too old, desperate in fact. Elspeth has enjoyed her own minor distinction as a writer, admires Grahame and mirrors him in being under the thumb of a step-father whose house she runs. Surprisingly released by his reciprocal announcement of a second marriage, where she’d certainly be in the way, Elspeth discovers then why, flinching and epistolary courtship leads to an almost paper marriage. Fantasies though, nicknames, and shy flinches away don’t make for late-snatched bliss.

McLoughlin beautifully conveys the eager warmth, thwarted sexuality, the fey attempts to embrace and the retreats into endearments through to a suppressed, butter disappointment. Foster doesn’t portray savagery or anything more than delicate exasperation, particularly after difficult childbirth and the need for contraception that her gets described in Elspeth-flinching detail by Fausner as a spa doctor who knows her pragmatic craft. Grahame accepts the outfall with more alacrity than Elspeth wants. His blank refusal – not incomprehension – to show tenderness at least is a kind of cruelty.

One of Cohen’s more striding roles is President Teddy Roosevelt, and it’s he who in part with its true progenitor Elspeth – who collected Grahame’s jottings aimed at Alistair – who launches The Wind in the Willows. An admirer of The Golden Book for the best reasons, Roosevelt doesn’t at first take to this new title – one finally hammered bout between Grahame and Q. But we can see it’s down to Elspeth’s thrift in saving these writings that Grahame’s first book for a decade (significantly, he’s not written since they met) finally emerges.

The succeeding scenes flash forward through young Alistair’s life, including a recorded offstage voice in a phone call. There’s trouble ahead in a whistle. Foster’s brought out the emergence of Q as Ratty, Grahame in effect as Mole, Alistair as Toad perhaps, but leaves it to the play to discover the outfall of real desolation, loneliness, and what Rupert Brooke might have called the long littleness of life if it hadn’t been said of him by Frances Cornford. This is the world to make you for life and ruin you for eternity at best, and ruin you for both otherwise.

The set’s a rich mix of desk with period telephone and reds and golds in various dusky Edwardian pinks serving as sofa  stage-right, and chairs where more stage-left the men inhabit. Indeed it’s a curious felicity that divides the stage I half this way: women rarely stray stage-left, and visa-versa, save Neil. He heads a consummate cast and his last fade is heartbreaking.

Foster’s superb in this territory – as her work on Kipling and others demonstrates. This is a gentle, subtle, unfolding play, revealing in half-lights and delicacy, never explosive, but devastating in storytelling. As a definitive staged version of Grahame’s life, it’s even more poignant than the fine radio version also extant, and will certainly hold the stage in its subsequent tour.