I confess, before attending the show, I didn’t quite know what to expect as I had not heard of the author Jane Aiken before. Her book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was something she had wanted to write for many years, incorporating topics that had interested her when growing up. These topics and tropes are instantly recognisible, providing something of interest for all.
Directed by Kate Bannister, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase opens with a disclaimer that the England where it takes place is an imaginary one. In this alternative history that’s similar to the one created by Philip Pullman in his Northern Lights Trilogy, King James III sits on the throne of ‘Victorian’ Britain. Here, Sylvia Green (Julia Pagett) is the ward of her aunt Jane in London. However, due to Jane’s limited financial means, it is agreed that Sylvia should live with Jane’s brother Sir Willoughby Green (Bryan Pilkington), his wife and their daughter Bonnie (Rebecca Rayne). Making the journey by train, Sylvia’s arrival coincides with her uncle and aunt’s trek to warmer climates, so that Lady Green can convalesce. As Bonnie and Sylvia would be left without a responsible adult to watch over them, Sir Willoughby arranges a governess for them, Miss Letitia Slightcarp (Adam Elliot) – a ‘distant relative’ who was ‘vouched for’ by his solicitor Mr Gripe. For Sylvia and Bonnie, this is just the beginning of their adventures… and troubles…
The beginning of the play is immediately evocative of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, with Sylvia having an eerie and memorable train journey. Asides from the aforementioned wolves, which live within close distance of Sylvia’s destination, her travelling companion – the effusive Mr Grimshaw (Bryan Pilkington) – proves to be less trustworthy the longer she knows him.
The arrival of Miss Slightcarp crystalises Mr Grimshaw’s true intentions and from the beginning, the adults’ united front provides a formidable obstacle for the cousins. As the protagonists, Rayne and Pagett are on stage much of the time, but for the rest of the cast, they play all manner of men and women – often to humorous effect. Elliot’s Miss Slightcarp is every bit a classic pantomime ‘baddie’, while his portrayal of Lucy is ‘comical’ for all the best reasons. Similarly, the secondary characters that Pilkington and Andrew Hollingworth play inject a ‘knowing’ humour into the proceedings. Half the fun of the show is its occasional acknowlegment that it isn’t reality and the ‘difficulties’ of playing more than one character who are meant to be on stage at the same time.
As the resolute cousins, Rayne and Pagett are the earnest centre of the play. Rayne’s Bonnie is the more spirited of the two, fearless and prone to speaking her mind. Pagett’s Sylvia is quieter and her more tentative in her actions. Having spent a lifetime as a ward of the family in some capacity, she has a measured opinion of herself and mindful of her surroundings.
A Dickensian melodrama with Gothic flourishes and a surfeit of mirth, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has something for everyone.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 6th January 2018.