Jack Studio Theatre – until 6 January. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Joan Aiken’s classic novel is brought to magical life as a fantastic festive feast of villainy, bravery and cheese appreciation.
Russ Tunney’s adaptation, with a cast of five portraying the quirky characters that people Aitken’s alternate 1832 England, is jam-packed with knowing wit and a pervasive sense of jeopardy. Bonnie Green and her cousin Sylvia are left in the care of distant relative Miss Slighcarp when Bonnie’s parents voyage abroad for the sake of her mother’s health. Miss Slighcarp’s motives soon become clear as she sacks the house servants and half starves the girls as she and her oafish companion Mr Grimshaw feast on champagne and oysters. With only footman James and Simon, the goose boy as allies, can the girls escape and bring justice down upon the wicked Slighcarp?
Well, this is Christmas, so obviously – yes. But even though the lucky coincidences of characters appearing in the nick of time and handy secret passages being found are performed with a wink and a glance to the audience, director Kate Bannister manages to keep the danger the children are in feeling urgent and real – even in the increasingly frantic final scenes as the multi-roling male actors excuse themselves to switch characters. The audience are all in on the gag, having been called upon to participate as servants and schoolchildren, and this sense of community and intimacy makes this production thrilling for young and old alike. The movie quotes may be lost on the children, but there is one cartoon reference that had the child next to me howling with laughter.
Speaking of howls, the soundscape and music created by Jack Barton and Elliot Clay is spookily atmospheric, from the ominously ticking clock to the wolfpack in full chase. Add to this Karl Swinyard’s simple but evocative set, with it’s panelled walls and mobile trees, the casts’ shared narration and songs, and Aiken’s England comes to life. The wolves aren’t exactly terrifying, but the puppets are used imaginatively in a very effective chase scene.
Rebecca Rayne and Julia Pagett are delightful as the plucky young heroines, with Pagett excelling in the arch humour as events come to a head, while Andrew Hollingworth is suitably sweet and noble in the roles of James and Simon. Adam Elliott’s Miss Slighcarp is a sneering, preening masterpiece, skewering the audience with disapproving glares, and is a fantastic comic partner to Bryan Pilkington’s cheese loving duo of odious Mr Grimshaw and alt-Dickensian Mrs Brisket.
Wonderfully nostalgic and anarchic at the same time, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a warm theatrical hug that is the perfect remedy for the Winter blues. Grab a ticket while you can.