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Review of White Fang at Park Theatre London

Danny Mahoney and Bebe Sanders in White Fang at Park Theatre. Photo by Jethro Compton
Danny Mahoney and Bebe Sanders in White Fang at Park Theatre. Photo by Jethro Compton.

This stage production has enough familiar characteristics from the novel White Fang but presents a different story from the one in the book. Not that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I thought it demonstrated considerable imagination and creativity to depart from it as radically as this play does.

Certain opinions in the novel would be downright controversial in this day and age (and might well have been somewhat awkward when it was first published). The book, in a nutshell, is about a wolf born in the wild that becomes domesticated – to an extent – through contact with humans, with whom the wolf establishes a servant/master relationship.

Anyone expecting a couple of hours watching a wolf learning the ways of the wild only to suffer worse brutality in captivity because of savage beatings by humans who really should know better is going to be disappointed – that said, the relatively life-like puppetry (James Silson) is impressive. But at the centre of proceedings here is Elizabeth Maria Scott (Mariska Ariya), known to her folks and friends in the Yukon – or rather, a friend, Curly (Bebe Sanders) – as Lyzbet. It’s modern and refreshing to place a female Native American character as the lead protagonist. This is no Disney princess, either: feistiness rolls over into incivility on occasion, but then it has to, especially when events become matters of life and death.

Lyzbet’s grandfather, Weedon (a compelling Robert G Slade) wants to uphold traditional values for Lyzbet, telling her that she’s a lady, though paradoxically she also goes out hunter-gathering. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899), times were a-changing in that part of the world, and Lyzbet shows a keen single-mindedness and dogged determination to do things her way. When a revelation about Beauty Smith (Paul Albertson), the prospective buyer of Weedon Smith’s land and property, is laid before Lyzbet by a worker on Weedon’s farm, Tom Vincent (Jonathan Mathews), this proves to be the show’s critical incident, changing the course of the rest of Lyzbet’s life. This triumph over adversity story can be a tad over-simplistic, inasmuch as – to misquote a nursery rhyme – the good people are very, very good and the bad people are horrid.

The set is kept uncluttered throughout. The lighting (Julian McCready) helps, for example, to transform the stage from Weedon’s front room to his barn very quickly indeed, and the scene changes are smooth. Perhaps in keeping with the era in which the play is set, sometimes the narrative moves a tad slower than it ought to. The inclusion of at least half a dozen songs, whilst very atmospheric, contributes to the ebbing and flowing of the production’s pace.

The variation in momentum is a good thing: for instance, as Lyzbet comes in from the cold and Curly assists in warming her up, a bit of calm after seeing Lyzbet seek retribution for a heinous crime is just what’s needed. Being a lover of theatre, a (mostly) indoor activity, I don’t know enough about the great outdoors to vouch for the authenticity of the sound effects. But they never proved a distraction, and if anything, added to this bold and intrepid experience.
4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Inspired by the classic novel by Jack London, White Fang is written and directed by Jethro Compton (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Park Theatre). The production had its world premiere at the freeFall Theatre in Florida, USA, right in the midst of the chaos from Hurricane Irma in October, which left the theatre completely unusable. In order to open the show as planned, the production team purpose built a brand new pop-up space so the show could go on.

Set in 1898, Canada, White Fang tells the story of a young girl who is rescued by an old huntsman after her tribe is massacred, and her subsequent acclimation into an unknown society. Torn from centuries of tradition, struggling to find her path in the world, she soon discovers hope in the friendship of an abandoned wolf – swiftly learning the customs of her ancestors, becoming skilled in the ways of the wild. But when the time comes, will these skills be enough to survive? With the help of a lone wolf, she must reconcile who she once was and who she now is.

LISTINGS
White Fang
PARK90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
Dates: 13 December 2017 –13 January 2018
Age guidance: 12 +

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