“We’ll put some ginger in the good lady’s gravy”
After The Box of Delights last week, I got to take another trip back into childhood favourites with this adaptation of Joan Aiken’s 1962 novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the Brockley Jack. Part of her Wolves Chronicles (my favourite of which, pointless trivia fans, is Black Hearts in Battersea) set in an alternate 1830s England, here an invasion of wolves is terrorising the countryside just at the moment that two young cousins have been abandoned into the care of a governess with sinister plans.
Already a tale of stirring adventure, the joy of Russ Tunney’s adaptation for the stage is that it revels in its theatricality, taking a much different but no less effective route. So a company of five take on the numerous roles, original compositions (by The State of Things‘ Elliot Clay) and folk songs haunt the storytelling, and there’s much used of shared narration, enhancing the already magical feel. And with a cleverly designed set (by Karl Swinyard) that allows for the inventive evocation of train carriages, stately home boltholes, silvery forests and more besides, there’s much to enjoy here.
For though it may not start off that way, the howling of the wolves as Bonnie and Sylvia come to terms with just how horrendous the malevolent Miss Slighcarp is really quite chilling, Kate Bannister’s production warms up into madcap antics and surreal humour as the tone swings closer to Play That Goes Wrong territory as the limitations of such a small company are hilariously exposed, and a strange of obsession with cheese comes to the fore in an almost farcical second act which is heaps of fun to watch.
Bryan Pilkington is key to this with his succession of Dickensian grotesques which forever hog the limelight with their deliciously fruity turn of phrase, but the show anchored by the relatively straight performances of Rebecca Rayne’s Bonnie and Julia Pagett’s Sylvia as the committed heroes of the tale. The casting of Adam Elliott as the vicious Miss Slighcarp can’t help but provoke questions for me though. He’s undoubtedly really most effective in the role, disdain dripping from every curl of his lip but even in a multi-roling ensemble like this, casting a man in the key older female role doesn’t sit right.
That aside, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase balances its poetic magic (“Long ago, in an England that never was…”) with a sense of festive fun (chocolate coins!) and thus becomes the ideal kind of Christmas entertainment that should do for every generation of your family.