Stepping into the theatre space the atmosphere is already settled for a wintery mystery and adventure. The audience is placed outside a mansion on a late evening invited to imagine a cosy fire place inside. The coldness is creeping closer in the form of haze triggering suspense. The silence only accompanied by an icy wind is penetrated by howling wolves: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are approaching…
Joan Aiken’s classic novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is adapted for the theatre by Russ Tunney and directed by Kate Bannister as the festive production for Jack Studio Theatre. The story of the two heroines Bonnie Green (Rebecca Rayne) and her cousin Sylvia (Julia Pagett) is set in a fictitious England in 1832 where wolves rule the countryside. The production offers singing and speaking choir and narration and action to immerse the audience in its storytelling.
Bonnie lives with her parents in Willoughby Chase until they need to leave for a milder climate because of her mum’s illness in the rough winter. To assure Bonnie’s well-being, her parents send for the governess Miss Slighcarp (Adam Elliot) and for the orphan Sylvia to keep each other’s company. The girls become friends immediately, but Miss Slighcarp endangers their sanctuary by taking over the Estate in her strict and harsh way of ruling supported by Mr. Grimshaw (Bryan Pilkington). Fast it becomes clear that the fate of the Estate and Bonnie’s family are at stake. The two girls find themselves in a plot where they need the support of the servant James (Andrew Hollingworth) and the boy Simon (ibid.). The adventure takes dark turns where the girls are challenged, but also promises light moments of hope and togetherness during their journey to London. The girls need all their courage to face the wolves who wait inside ready to attack.
Awakening a story from a novel, the production is aware of the narrative frame and increasingly breaks the 4th wall through the unfolding story. The characters invite the audience through role-taking as wolves, servants and school kids and through guided gazes causing laughter and shivers. The cast masters the shifts and merge of comedy and mystery especially during the impressive multiple character embodiment by Elliot, Hollingworth and Pilkington which reaches its peak in the finale. Although the stage presence is consciously exaggerated, it is sometimes endangered to fall into stereotypes and slapstick characteristics. Furthermore, the speaking choir is an effective vehicle to trigger suspense, but would be more effective when used slightly less to leave more room for one of the narrator’s voice a time which brilliantly frames the storytelling.
With passion, playfulness and presence guides the cast through the story sparking moments of joy in the bleak and dark scenery. Especially the second part is truly an enjoyment of immersion and entertainment. The ice-skating scene in part one suggests a few corrections considering the closeness to the audience and the execution of actions to stress the break of harmony and danger in the thrilling chase.
The set design (Karl Swinyard) convinces through its immersive character and flexibility to portray scene changes inside and outside. The well-tuned conversation of set, soundscapes (Elliot Clay, Jack Barton) and light (Ben Jacobs) accompanies the invitation for this lively stage adaptation. Thus, the craft of metaphorical language is emphasised and shines in images throughout the production.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a passionate and convincing adaptation. Its storytelling and its dismantling shifts between comedy and mystery and mixes together the right tension to enjoy a wintery evening with this heart-warming company of wolves in the Jack Theatre Space.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is playing at Jack Studio Theatre until 6th of January. For more information and tickets, see www.brockleyjack.co.uk/portfolio/the-wolves-of-willoughby-chase.