The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the Brockley Jack is based on Russ Tunney’s adaptation of the book by Joan Aiken, originally written for children in 1962. It has a dark and eerie atmosphere, especially at the beginning when the threat of lurking wolves feels very real, and I would say the humour is more adult-orientated too, so it is definitely not the all ages entertainment which some families might be expecting. Going by the title, and not knowing the book, I was disappointed that the wolves’ presence dwindles as the story goes along, and soon there is no real mention of them. However the world of Willoughby Chase is in ‘an England that didn’t exist’; and soon you start to realise that the wolves are there throughout, they are just not the type of wolves that you think they are.
The plot follows young Bonnie Green (Rebecca Rayne) who is left by her parents at Willoughby Chase under the care of governess Miss Slighcarp, since her ailing mother needs to recuperate in warmer climates. Bonnie’s cousin Sylvia (Julia Pagett) has recently been orphaned and comes to stay at Willoughby Chase too, via an anxious train journey in the wolf-ridden countryside when she meets an odd man called Mr Grimshaw (Bryan Pilkington). There is no warm welcome when she arrives at the old house. Miss Slighcarp is a foul, strict creature who is soon found rifling through private family papers, and prancing around in Lady Green’s gowns. Played by Adam Elliott, who I last enjoyed at the Jack last Christmas in the Hound of the Baskerville, as reviewed here, he/she (also doubling as the character known as ’18’) is also the total delight of this show.
Miss Slighcarp dismisses the majority of other servants in the house, retaining only James (Adam Hollingworth). It soon becomes clear that she, conniving with Mr Grimshaw, has nefarious objectives which have nothing to do with the girls’ wellbeing. Soon Bonnie and Sylvia are sent off to another ‘school’. With the help of Simon the kindly lad with a mysterious job (‘goose boy’, also Adam Hollingworth) they manage to escape, and flee to London where the plot finally concludes after a series of twists and turns and mischievous humour around the doubling of the actors.
There is a smattering of songs, and some verse spoken as a group, but you feel that singing is not where the talents of the cast really lie. I wondered if they needed the songs at all. I also felt that the plot runs away with itself towards the end and I was left feeling a little bit lost and left out, rather than involved in the fun.
However, the wry humour and the characterisation of Slighcarp make this into an enjoyable evening, full of ice skating in snowy fields, a deep friendship between the young girls, dark passageways and malevolent characters. The cast is directed well by Kate Bannister, and Karl Swinyard’s set design is impressive as always. Thank you to all involved for another great year of theatre at the Brockley Jack.
hattydaze rating: ***/*****
We saw The Wolves of Willoughby Chase thanks to press tickets. It plays at the Jack Studio Theatre until 6th January 2018 (tickets are sold out but check the theatre website for listings for future productions).