Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Young company Not Cricket Productions create an atmospheric world for this play that extends beyond the theatre. When orphaned Bonnie joins her cousin at Willoughby Chase they are flung into an adventure, outwitting an evil governess and fighting cold, hunger and wolves to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Children will enjoy this exciting story and appreciate the magical world created by this imaginative young company.
The gnarled, damp, peeling walls of C Soco’s studios are a wonderfully atmospheric introduction to the shabby steampunk world of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, adapted by Kate Stephenson and Jez Thurgood for Not Cricket Productions’ show for children. As the audience ascends the dilapidated staircase to Studio 2, a shadowy figure in the corner of the stairwell calls out in the commanding tones of a sinister governess ‘Are you bound for Willoughby Chase? Hurry along now, or you’ll be late!’ Then, as we go into Studio 2, the foreboding atmosphere is continued simply and effectively by wind sound effects and billowing stage smoke that invokes the bleak wintery winds of Willoughby Park as well as the sinister smog of 19th century London. Then the show begins, just as atmospherically, with choral voices emerging from the fog.
This adaptation sticks respectfully close to the language of the novel, though could probably have done with more cuts for theatrical purposes as it tends to drag in places with exposition that is unnecessary or overlong, and the few songs are too long for a play of this length. The young actors have a mix of abilities, though most show potential. As a young, untrained company there is an inevitable lack of vocal control – lots of the dialogue is missed because the actors talk too quickly, too quietly, too shrilly or with insufficient clarity. But there is some promising acting: Hattie Scopes and Hannah Boland shine in small roles, Jeannie Scott brings the right bold energy to Bonnie, and Emily Webb is a suitably warm and gentle Pattern. Jenna Al-Ansari’s Miss Slighcarp and Jez Thurgood’s Mrs Brisket are delightfully evil, the children in the audience particularly enjoyed them and their comeuppance. Director Kate Stephenson’s delivery of Lady Green’s shipwreck speech at the end of the play is superb storytelling. The reunion between Sylvia and Aunt Jane, and Bonnie and her parents rounded off the play nicely, and were particularly well-received by the children in the audience. There are some lovely moments of staging and design – the wide stage was ideal for the split-stage double scenes that were used to great effect. The packing cases used to create different props and scenery were clever and simple, the construction of Caroline the donkey out of boxes and suitcases a particularly strong moment. Simon’s goose marionettes are a good idea, but could be made more of.
While the production does not quite fulfil the promise made by the magical pre-show atmosphere (though this atmosphere is sustained – the moment of blackout in which we hear Mr Grimshaw’s footsteps in the night is very effective), it is lively and exciting and was enjoyed by the children in the audience. I recommend it to more children, whether they have read the book or not, and award it three stars for the exciting story realised effectively on stage, the cast’s lively energy, and the pervasive, memorable, spine-tingling atmosphere the company so beautifully created.