Review: The Wolves Descend

My high hopes rapidly descended for this opera. The Wolves Descend is advertised to promise something gothic and sinister, but instead it spirals into farce.

The cheesily named ‘The House of the Night’ guest house is suffering due to the tourists’ disappointment at the lack of wolf sightings. But with the arrival of Phoebe (Laura Curry) – a girl who won’t be missed! [insert evil laughter here] – the staff of the guest house hatch a villainous plan with surprising consequences. The busy, clumsy plot is like that of a Scooby-Doo episode, complete with both real and pretend werewolves.

Guy Withers’s character, Goran, has the classically hunchbacked and hairy persona of an Igor-esque henchman. In fact, they’re all like stock characters from a ghost story. Somewhere within Elf Lyons’s direction is an insightful point about there being more animalistic tendencies within some human beings than in hypothetical monsters, but it’s all overshadowed by the lack of character depth. Alongside Goran, the other staff includes Eva (played dully by Victoria Bourne), Matej (Ben Westerman) and Tomo (Kester Guy-Briscoe). And without more background to these characters, their primal characteristics are baffling. Their behaviour is just gratuitously violent.

The problem is that the cast over-act for their lives, so that they are like caricatures of real human beings, losing all verisimilitude. There are too many crazed eyes and wild gesticulations, and the way in which Raphael (Charlie Morris) and Kendra (Hayley Louise Guest) fawn over each other incessantly is just plain irritating. What’s more, few of them can translate this acting into their singing. Kudos to them all for investing so much energy into their characters but, in every respect, the biggest fault with this production is that neither the cast nor production team took the space into account; this leads the former to overcompensate and the latter to undercompensate.

The Lion and Unicorn is a small black box and, although operas often follow more ludicrous plotlines, they also have a duty to produce these convincingly. This production doesn’t have the scope to pull that off. Westerman opens the show pacing for about five minutes in what we’re supposed to believe is a forest, but throwing a few leaves on the floor doesn’t make a forest, nor do spray painted Uggs make convincing boots. The Wolves Descend tackles ambitious subject matter in an age where werewolves can only come close to convincing with the magic of technology, not just sticking a bit of fur on.

There are no Pavarottis in the cast, but Westerman possesses a deep and dark tone, and Curry’s vocal is crystal clear and – more importantly – emotive, something which I struggled to find in the vocals. One of the reasons for this is how strict the performers’ phrasing is, in an altogether pedestrian-paced opera. It all lacks emotional fuel. Guy-Briscoe isn’t the strongest vocalist in the cast, but he has a ferocious ability to act through his voice and definitely shows the rest how it should be done.

There is an element of Spielberg about Matthew Pearson’s score. It signals when there is tension between characters, or something to fear, or when the scene is meant to be comedic (it isn’t). Pearson’s opera is appropriately chromatic, setting the scene of a dark and spooky night. And when the ensemble comes together, some terrifying harmonies resonate in the space. This score just isn’t innovative, its repetitious nature even harking to musical theatre tunes at times. And again, it needs a larger space for a larger group of musicians to achieve a more powerful effect; the music should be at the centre of an opera, but instead it’s more like a soundtrack.

In order to be successful in the current craze for supernatural creatures, The Wolves Descend needs to be bigger and longer: something I say with regret, as the show already feels long enough. It’s too slow and, directed by Lyons, The Wolves Descend is only a two-dimensional opera, lacking cohesion and falling short of its potential to be something exciting and chilling.

The Wolves Descend is playing at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 28 July. For more information and tickets, see The Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.

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