The Jack Studio is bringing 2017 to a suitably wintry close with their production of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, adapted by Russ Tunney and directed by Kate Bannister. The story of two plucky young girls taking on their villainous governess, this thrilling adventure is presented with tongue firmly in cheek, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
When Bonnie Green’s wealthy parents leave for a long sea voyage, she and her orphaned cousin Sylvia are left in the care of their new governess, the sinister Miss Slighcarp. Aided by a mysterious stranger Sylvia encountered on the train to Willoughby Chase, it’s not long before Miss Slighcarp has set in motion a dastardly plot to steal the Willoughby home and fortune. But her two young charges are not so easily defeated, and fight back with help of their own from an eccentric assortment of characters, some secret passages – and a couple of geese.
The wolves of the title, meanwhile, are noticeably absent; we are, however, pointedly informed that they came from Eastern Europe, through the newly constructed Channel Tunnel, and have taken over the English countryside. Despite this, their menacing presence is always more of an implied than an actual threat – we only actually see the wolves once in the whole play, though they’re often mentioned – while, as it turns out, the greater danger comes from within.
The production is spookily atmospheric throughout, thanks to excellent work from designers Karl Swinyard (set), Ben Jacobs (light) and Jack Barton (sound). Despite a dramatic opening, however, within minutes it’s become clear that this is not a show we’re supposed to take terribly seriously. Largely, this is thanks to the casting of Adam Elliott as the deliciously wicked Miss Slighcarp (among several other roles). With a permanent sneer of disdain and absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever, she’s a proper villain we can really love to hate, along with her comically absurd partners in crime Mr Grimshaw and Mrs Brisket, both played – again, among several others – by Bryan Pilkington. It’s all a little bit panto (there’s even a bit of audience participation), especially towards the end as events grow increasingly chaotic, but that just adds to the fun. And it is Christmas, after all.
As often happens in panto, the good guys inevitably end up playing it a little straight next to their larger-than-life adversaries. That said, Rebecca Rayne as Bonnie, Julia Pagett as Sylvia and Andrew Hollingworth, who plays footman James and the girls’ friend Simon, are likeable, intrepid heroes, each of whom grows and matures as the story progresses. They’re also not without a mischievous twinkle of their own from time to time; I particularly enjoyed the two girls “skating” – and who can forget the cheese alphabet…
The show is an intriguing mix of classic children’s tale, spooky mystery and laugh-out-loud comedy – the sort of combination that sounds like it shouldn’t be possible but somehow works really well. There’s certainly never a dull moment, and it’s always fun as an audience member to see a cast who are not only talented performers but are also clearly having a great time themselves. If you’re expecting to see wolves, you may be a bit disappointed – but otherwise this is a show that delivers on every level.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉