One shouldn’t judge a play by its title, of course. The wolves in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase make a brief appearance, in the form of some decent puppetry, but otherwise, they are conspicuous by their absence. They are palpably feared, however, in a production that makes much comic relief of the limitations that come with a cast of five playing more than double the number of characters between them.
A strong script from Russ Tunney allows for descriptions of scenes to tell the audience enough to establish what is happening without elaborate scenery and/or special effects, but without saying so much that nothing is left to the imagination. At other times, the movement (Roman Berry) becomes quite physical. At one point, characters ski quite convincingly without actual skis in sight, and at another, a hurried getaway palpably demonstrates an urgency to escape from danger.
For what is an adaptation of a children’s novel, the show is rather meatier than would be reasonably expected for a family show. It is not, however, overly dark or too complicated: children are, I think, sometimes underestimated by festive productions, if not downright patronised. This production, I am pleased to report, does neither, holding enough interest for young and old alike in a gripping and enchanting manner.
At the heart of the story are Bonnie (Rebecca Rayne) and her cousin Sylvia (Julia Pagett), and the tale is sufficiently captivating as a children’s story with girls at the forefront. There are, ultimately, few surprises in the narrative: good triumphs over evil, there is no gain without pain, and the greater the adversity sustained the greater the significance of the triumph that results. Miss Slighcarp (Adam Elliott) is so overly vicious in her pronouncements I found it difficult not to treat her as a pantomime villain, and I had to resist the temptation to boo and hiss. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical came to mind.
A few songs permeate the storyline, including a beautiful rendering of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. The play is set in 1832, “in an England that never existed”, although by the end I wasn’t entirely convinced that everything was other-worldly. An orphanage run by a Mrs Brisket (a thoroughly bombastic Bryan Pilkington, simultaneously stern and absurd), really functions as a poor house for children, with horrid living conditions that wouldn’t be out of place in the very darkest depictions of such places in the writings of Charles Dickens.
Then again, I liked the idea of secret passageways here, there and everywhere, and the just-in-time arrival of a certain character in a scene, heightening the audience’s emotions as the sense of something untoward about to happen is suddenly replaced by relief and reassurance. This, in turn, gives way to frantic activity, as there’s no time to waste in seeing to injustices being corrected. It’s not exactly exhausting, but I did come away having felt the show elicited a range of sentiments and responses as it progressed.
The set doesn’t change much: if it did, it would have slowed the pace of the production down, and the show’s magic would be somewhat reduced. Andrew Hollingworth doubles up as Simon and James, both local lads who look out for Bonnie and Sylvia, though in markedly different ways and contexts. I usually find the music in plays superfluous, even wholly unnecessary – here, Elliot Clay has done a magnificent job in adding to the show’s atmosphere in his compositions.
Equally humorous and mysterious (or, to quote the show, “simply ridiculous”), this delightful production is nothing short of a tour de force.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It is 1832. Wolves roam England, terrorising the countryside in greater numbers than ever before.
At the Willoughby Estate, in the grip of a cruel winter, Bonnie and her orphaned cousin Sylvia are left in the care of the equally chilling governess Miss Slighcarp, whose mysterious plans place the future of Willoughby Chase at risk.
As the wolves circle ever closer, the cousins must uncover the treachery that puts their lives in danger and embark on an epic adventure which takes them from the snowy grounds of Willoughby Chase to the dark heart of London.
Joan Aiken’s classic novel, loved by generations, is brought to life in this thrilling, funny and heart-warming adaptation. Directed by Kate Bannister and produced by the same team behind The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Haunting and The Mystery of Irma Vep.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
by Joan Aiken
adapted for the stage by Russ Tunney
produced by the Jack Studio Theatre
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre,
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH