A tonic replete with the heady charm of the 1920s, A Year with Frog and Toad is a fabulous paean to the value of friendship that will leave you with a smile in your heart, whoever you are.
It’s a simple concatenation of Arnold Lobel’s sweet little stories, featuring a go-getting young frog (Teekay Baloyi), and his less outgoing but no less delightful friend, a toad (Devon Flemmer) blending into the mix a snail, a couple of mice, some birds and a turtle, to name but a few of the creatures that give this show voice and life, through the weather and changing currents of a year. The trajectory of the material is clear enough to wrap a three-year-old in its fabulousness, but succinct and deep enough to bring tears of happiness in a pensioner: if you don’t have a child to accompany you, it’s not a handicap: this show touches everyone.
We’ve seen Devon Flemmer in a number of National Children’s Theatre productions over the past few years. He’s a seriously focused and extremely competent young performer, but arguably has soundly come into his own in this role, lending Toad so many utterly endearing qualities, such a powerful singing voice, and so earnest an understanding of manner and ‘toadhood’ that he enables the character a dignity which is almost bigger than its scripted role. His performance alone is sufficient justification for coming to Parktown.
Flemmer is supported by a delicious cast, with a sung and danced performance that is astutely constructed, attesting to not only the work of the heavy weights in the creative team, but also to the value of the discipline, that sings to a dynamic evoking a late 1920s style, with some flagrant and jazzy digressions from a humble snail/wannabe postman (JP Rossouw) and a curious and hilarious turtle (Didintle Khunou).
The 1920s frenetic theme is echoed into the costumes, which never stoop to anthropomorphism – the kind of thing that sees adult performers in big fluffy onesies with tails and ears – but instead offers thoughtful, elegant and quirky solutions to the idea of ‘birdhood’ or ‘snailhood’ through dress metaphor that will make you laugh with recognition, but be aware of the fashions of a world that cherished the charleston, complete with feather boas and cheesecutter hats and garishly striped blazers, without being obnoxiously camp or foolish.
The honed touch of set designer Stan Knight holds the work irrevocably together. With a focal point that rests diagonally across the space, between the homes of the two friends, a parallel set is cast, and balanced with the tales told, and the satisfying splaying of music and dance, lyrics and quirks.
The intimacy of the theatre is embraced with a snugness which does, at times become too tight, however: the work features both strobe lights and theatrical fog, and an interface between performers and audience which is at times too close: this can challenge your physical or emotional comfort in the audience, depending on where you sit.
A Year with Frog and Toad is the kind of production that harks back to a time when earnest moment was lent to small gestures, where manners mattered and behaviour made a difference. Frog’s friendship with Toad is about forgiveness and harmony as much as it is about patience and values, ghost tales and eating too many cookies. With more cheekiness than the stultifying saccharine of arguably better known stories to South African children, Frog and Toad echoes the love AA Milne’s Pooh bear has for his friend Piglet, and contains a number of truths which skirt cliché in touching you deeply.
- A Year with Frog and Toad is directed by Francois Theron, based on the eponymous Broadway musical and the series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel published in the 1970s. It is designed by Drew Rienstra and Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Devon Flemmer, Didintle Khunou, Khanyisile Nhlapho and JP Rossouw, and performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until October 11. Call 011-484-1584 or visit org.za