The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a children’s novel, rather than a play: accordingly, the Maddermarket’s Christmas staging, using an adaptation of Joan Aiken’s book by Russ Tunney, keeps our mind firmly on the physicality of the original book, with a huge open volume taking centre stage at all times. Some characters literally emerge from this, appearing at the top of its giant spine; and, as its huge pages turn, beautiful projections magically transform those blank pages into moonlit snowy woods, or the frozen landscape seen from a train, while Bonnie can actually climb back inside the book through another page with a hidden door to the all-important secret passage. Elsewhere, panels of delicate, invisibly suspended pages suggest well-thumbed library walls, or drifts of falling leaves. While the book itself sets our scene, Aiken’s characters mostly step from page to stage with her original warmth and vigour intact in the Maddermarket’s fast-paced, vibrant and appealing production, directed and designed by Jez Pike, which feels satisfyingly wintry and exciting: festive fun with no tinsel needed.
While it looks wonderful on stage, this whirlwind novel doesn’t squeeze itself down into a two-act play very comfortably: by the second half, Russ Tunney has to resort to fairly basic tactics to convey the magnificent sweeps of Aiken’s intricate plot (with characters desperately shouting factual updates to each other as the action snowballs towards its finale), and much of the important contrasts and ironic connections between Bonnie and Sylvia’s family situations are lost: there’s only the time for the simplest elements of each problem to be outlined, but what is lost in detail is made up for in pace. An ambitious metatheatrical moment (when the cast break character to evaluate their own performances) doesn’t quite come off. However, Tunney cleverly introduces a Chorus to retain an authorial voice on stage, here played by David Newham, Charmaine Pullman and Etta Geras, three mature actors who bring a glorious richness to Aiken’s words, acting as a trio of master storytellers. The Chorus’ sumptuous palette of voices gives us sophisticated plot narration which is also easy to follow, delivering the intense, dark and exciting mood of Aiken’s original. Just as in the novel, the wolves are often tantalisingly close, though never quite part of the action; Pullman and Geras, in silk scarves and white fur coats, occasionally don wolf masks as they prowl over the stage, so that wolves look more like dangerous grown-ups than animals, in this world where grown-ups have become predators par excellence, and children – the prey – can only survive by wit, courage and luck.
We have a stylish, vivacious and gutsy Bonnie from Deryn Andrews, a fittingly brave, impulsive yet thoughtful heroine. Andrews leads the cast with true Bonnie-like authority and charm. Bonnie’s gentle cousin Sylvia is conveyed with subtlety and sincerity by Moira Hickson, who captures both Sylvia’s outer fragility and inner strength in a noticeably fine performance. Trevor Burton is brilliantly versatile as he takes on the dastardly Grimshaw, befuddled lawyer Gripe and hapless Dr Morne in turn. Jez Pike contributes warm energy and humour as James, Simon and the deluded School Inspector, though his James and Simon don’t have all that much to differentiate between them except costume. Tim Lane has more trouble with Miss Slighcarp, a role really several shades too dark for a traditional pantomime dame, leaving Lane with a tricky task of balancing her undeniable nastiness with a humour that isn’t really part of the character: Miss Slighcarp is pure malice at heart. Lane is utterly natural in his small cameo as the kind blacksmith Mr Wilderness. On the night reviewed, Glenda Gardiner was unwell, so her parts (Sir Willoughby and Mrs Briskett) were read in, with nice extempore characterisation, by Rebecca Wass: it is a testament to everyone else’s skill that the production hardly suffered in terms of tension and atmosphere despite this intervention. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase will proceed with a full cast for the rest of its run.
Well worth seeing – and well worth following up with this brilliant novel in your Christmas stocking (or your child’s!) afterwards.
Until 31 December 2017. Box office: 01603 620 917