How often has the expression “Straight from the mouths of babes” been said? Received wisdom says kids have an ‘innocence’ – or at least they haven’t yet acquired the ‘social skills’ that adults have to deflect their innermost thoughts. But does this make them any less acquipped to understand the world? Written by Simon James and directed by Samantha Robinson, The Toad In The Hole looks at three young children in their primary school class.
Split into three ‘mini-beasts’ groups (butterflies, moths and worms), the children are ‘officially’ taught according to the teaching style that suits their respective needs. However, the children are only too aware of what the groups signify – the ranking of the children from the cleverest to the ‘academically-challenged’.
Within this world are three friends: ‘Butterfly’ (Valerie Antwi), ‘Moth’ (Nicola O’Keefe) and ‘Worm’ (Tom McNulty). While this ‘educational experiment’ in the classroom hasn’t divided them, they talk amongst themselves about what it’s like being in their respective groups, and whether they are inspired or happy.
‘Butterfly’ is one of the top pupils in the class and unlike her ‘peers’, actually likes reading for its own sake instead of watching TV. Her closest ‘academic rival’ is also friends with ‘Moth’, who spends time with the other girl after school, because her mother works in the evenings. Reading in between the lines, we realise this impacts on Moth’s interest in learning, even if she has a natural aptitude. Realising his predicament, ‘Worm’ would give anything to be in one of the other groups and move up the class hierachy. But as the play shows, ‘Worm’ isn’t ‘slow’ – just lacking in confidence and reveals an innate understanding of the syntax of language. Unlike caterpillars, worms don’t naturally evolve into butterflies, but if he was ‘classified’ incorrectly, anything’s possible…
Discussions about their respective parents and ‘home life’ play a big part in The Toad In The Hole. However, the way the play’s deftly written and performed, the audience will twig the significance of what the children have observed, even if they themselves don’t. Each of the actors delivers a nuanced performance, expressing so much through their faces and child-like body language. However, in terms of winning the audience over, McNulty’s ‘Worm’ is the play’s charismatic centre.
The play cleverly addresses tangential issues related to education: social class, money, and the amount of time parents spend with children – if at all. Also highlighted are the attitudes to teaching and teachers’ own experience as children, as shown in the case of Miss Bailey (Clare Woodward). But because the ‘children’ in the play can only see things through their perspective, there’s no didactism when the topics are raised.
Far from being light fayre with little significance, The Toad In The Hole holds a mirror to the myriad of factors that affect the education and well-being of children. However, what lessons will WE draw as responsible adults and what really is in children’s best interests?
© Michael Davis 2018
The Toad In The Hole ran at Barons Court Theatre from 4th-9th September.