The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins in the forest with wolves howling and atmospheric lighting setting the scene for a night of Gothic horror. My companion whispered, ‘Will it be scary?’ Slowly and mysteriously the cast appeared amongst the trees reciting a tale of terror before leader of the pack Adam Elliot rolled his eyes in a Larry Grayson style. ‘No’, I replied. I remember Elliot from last year’s hilarious Hound of the Baskervilles and realised this was going to be an evening of much mirth rather than marauding murderers, writes Michael Holland…
‘Believe in the dawn and the night will soon be over’ a little girl is told as she reads her Once Upon A Time book, so we know that this idyllic family scene at Willoughby Hall will soon change. And change it does: Bonnie’s parents leave for warmer climes so her mother can get well; her orphan cousin Sylvia is coming to keep her company, as well as Miss Sleighcarp, the evil governess with her eye on the estate and the money – ‘My heart beats with abandoned glee’, hisses Sleighcarp on her arrival. Drop in a double-dealing lawyer and Mrs Brisket, the proprietress of a school for orphaned girls, and you have the makings of a Victorian melodrama. And, of course, the wolves. Don’t forget the wolves.
This adaptation by Russ Tunney from Joan Aiken’s book has been torn asunder by this troupe of comic ne’er do wells as they have us laughing at children being abused with beatings and starvation and being locked away in cupboards. There is the hilarious wig coming off and the stray goose feather falling from a hat and we don’t know if this is part of the plot or mismanaged mishaps. But we understand that with so many characters for just five actors there will be moments when one person’s two roles cannot be on stage at the same time, and this farcical fun is as good as it can get here as they milk the situation’s comedic content for all it’s worth. The similarity of Bryan Pilkington’s many parts meant I hardly knew who he was at any given time (except when he was Mrs Brisket), and soon forgot which one was the loquacious character: ‘That’ll put ginger in your gravy’(!).
But this mayhem that arose as the play built to a crescendo of madness became its crowning glory. Who cares about narrative when you are being entertained so well? And who cares about the wolves? I’m not even sure if they were merely forgotten in the chaos?
We all loved the train ride – I could see the audience bobbing up and down with its ‘movement’. And we all wanted to go ice skating with Bonnie and Sylvia because they made it look so much fun as they glided around.
Adam Elliot does steal the show here but let that not take anything away from Rebecca, Andrew, Bryan and Julia who all throw everything they’ve got into this fantastic production.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is on at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, SE4 2DH until January 6th. Times: Tues – Sat 7.30pm. Admission: £15, £12 concs. Phone: 03333 666 3366.