Review: The Wolves in the Walls, Little Angel Theatre

Toby Olié’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel is an imaginatively crafted piece of puppetry theatre, fusing music, live puppets and shadow-play to create a world that whisks us in and doesn’t let us go until the final picture. Little Lucy hears noises in the walls, but no one believes her. Not her controlling mother who usually has a plan for everything, her goofy father who’s more focussed on his tuba practise, nor her brother whose hands are too glued to a games console. Until one day, with a spooky and stuff-of-nightmares set idea, a sharp tool cuts through the central wall piece and the wolves escape into the house, forcing the family to live in their garden. It becomes up to our brave little protagonist to take on the animals and save the day. 

Olié’s puppetry works a treat in the transformation of this story from text to stage. The whole design of the show has a total feeling of cartoon, of the type of drawings you’d see in a children’s novel. The ensemble of four performers, Matthew Churcher, Elisa De Grey, Michael Fowkes and Katie Haygarth, bring the various puppets to life with heart and dexterity. Working at times together to control a single unit, at other times individually, everything is thought through from the breath at the core of each character, to their gait and poise. Lucy’s puppet is the only one with legs, giving her an urgency to move from space to space as we travel along with her through the story, and an inquisitive quality that she carries with her throughout. The Dad moves with a cool and collected nonchalance, Mum’s shoulders and arms come high and out front as she’s mixing in the kitchen, and her brother’s dark red hair has its own sense of body.

The live puppets are matched with an equally impressive use of shadow-play, as the characters disappear behind one of the misshapen gauze screens to illustrate parts of the journey. The total effect and bridging of the two forms of puppetry create an almost cinematic aesthetic to the performance. Accompanied with such a sense of life from the actors, human and puppet quickly become one and the experience becomes totally transfixing. 

Adam Pleeth’s music, which scores underneath the whole of the show, is composed with a tightness to the plot and emotional arc. There’s a poignant moment when Lucy is by herself at the bottom of the garden, where the feel of the music gives a tremble to her lip, evoking a very authentic sympathy. It’s at this moment where I really appreciate the craft of the whole thing, and it works a delight. Carl Grose’s lyrics help to express some of the characterisations, even if they don’t blend so naturally with the rest of the storytelling. They’re an effective element to flesh out the characters. 

The segment with the wolves in the house feels a little dragged out, in a story which isn’t exactly action-packed. It becomes much more enjoyable when the slapstick and physical comedy begins, and I would’ve preferred it if it moved slightly quicker into this. But as for the rest of the story, it gently invites you in and, even as an adult, you very quickly go back to that childhood feeling of the adults not listening to you. The children in the audience were clearly entertained and engaged, evident from the comments I overheard at the end. A very adept and enjoyable production for all ages.

The Wolves in the Walls is playing Little Angel Theatre until 26 April 2020. For more information and tickets, see the Little Angel Theatre website.