With its long-lost twins, its wolf-mother, its tree-chorus and its woodpecker-arbiter, you would be forgiven for thinking Wolfie is a regular fairy-tale. You would also be wrong. Ross Willis’s experimental script tells the story of the unloved children who are neglected to a callous society and who can find no safety in the magic of our traditional children’s narratives.
Wolfie follows the lives of two sisters, known only as ‘da Sharky Twins’, who are separated from their mother at birth and then from each other shortly after. The elder, more adventurous sister (Sophie Melville) is deemed surplus to requirements for the foster family and not-so-reluctantly taken to the woods to be killed by her foster father. There she is saved by a wolf who kills her foster father before raising the baby girl. The younger sister (Erin Doherty) is brought up by her foster mother (played by a yellow bean-bag) who is sunk so deep in self-pity she has nothing left to give her daughter. Neither recover from the deep sense of worthlessness this instils in them as they try to find their place in adult society.
The production seeks every opportunity to collide the unexpected, incongruous, surreal and occasionally the grotesque. The dialogue lurches between fast, rhythmic, expletive-laden slang and fragile vulnerability. Meanwhile the characters begin the performance within a loose representation of a six-foot womb backlit with rose-tinted light that softens Basia Bińkowska’s otherwise brutalist set design. It’s certainly worth bringing some fairly heavy-duty suspenders along for your disbelief.
These innovations are made possible by Melville and Doherty’s dynamic physical performances and rapid, impeccably-timed interchanges tightly-woven together by Lisa Spirling’s crisp, energetic direction. On the other hand, the emotional narrative at the play’s centre sometimes feel a little superficial and simplistic against its jagged edges. The repeated emphasis on characters’ “sparkle”, accompanied by thrown handfuls of glitter, is especially overdone, whilst nicknaming Doherty’s character Francium (“so radioactive it tends to dissolve itself before it has a chance to do anything”) is more than a little cartoonish.
In fact, some of the most convincing scenes are those which branch out into vignettes of garrulous trees or a supercilious male work colleague characterised by a limbless mannequin. It is in these moments that the absurd is most effectively harnessed to form a slightly more oblique social commentary that is as powerful as it is funny: people who land on their heads just aren’t “trying hard enough to integrate” says the careless woodpecker as she (literally) drops Melville’s character back into the human world.
In short, Wolfie is an ambitious project unafraid of taking risks, some of which pay off more than others. It’s also unafraid of asking uncomfortable questions about the world we live in and the stories we tell about it. Certainly, we are reminded throughout that fairy-tales can do little to change the destiny of the Sharky twins. But by the time the production has built to an emotionally resonant conclusion we are left wondering if the tales we tell our children are really to assuage our own nagging sense of responsibility for those left behind.
Wolfie is playing until 13 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Theatre503 website.