“A small Balkan nation lost their independence for you”
There’s a real sense of being in a place one ought not to be with the Network Theatre. On a road which doesn’t appear on any maps and down a service tunnel alongside and under Waterloo station, the unassuming door leads into a converted arch which is the home for a company, Southern Railway Dramatic Society, who have been going since 1939. Other companies also put on shows there like the Sturdy Beggars who return here with this production of Ferenc Molnár’s The Wolf.
Molnár is a Hungarian writer – one of their most beloved apparently – whose influence has been felt in adaptations of his work from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel to Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing ¬ but The Wolf has not been performed in the UK since the early 70s. Exploring the delicate balance of keeping a marital relationship working in the face of insecurities and long-hidden dreams, its portrait of the compromises and conflicting priorities feel as apposite today as it must have done at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Brendan Jones’ Eugene sees the way to his wife’s enduring loyalty as being through financial security – his nervy manner seeing betrayal in her every glance at another man. As Vilma, the wife who is expected to take a million kroner in place of a true declaration of love. Katherine French find an hauteur – well played, though you do feel sorry for her child – which is only melted by the arrival on the scene of a long-lost love, a canny turn from Alexander Andreou, neatly suggesting the disparity between idealised recollection and humdrum reality.
Harper’s production comes into its own with the fantasia of the opening to the second half: hyper-real characters, ridiculous scenarios and a controlled element of farce that really works – the (mostly) youthful ensemble rising delightfully to the challenge. When the play focuses on the central love triangle, it loses a little of the comic sensibility that is sprinkled over the opening scene, the farcical additions later on feeling a little forced.
There’s an excellently-written programme note about the importance of continuing to explore the vast wealth of neglected plays by unfamiliar playwrights, in conjunction with investing in new writing, rather than focusing on the latter at the expense of everything else. And the Sturdy Beggars have hit on something here: it’s different yet familiar in its ultimate focus on relationships and though I’d rein in the frippery of the over-elaborate scene changes, it makes for an entertaining evening.