The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Adapted for the stage by Russ Tunney from the novel by Joan Aiken
The Jack Studio Theatre
The Jack Studio Theatre

Adam Elliott as Miss Slighcarp, Andrew Hollingworth (centre) and Bryan Pilkington as Grimshaw Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Adam Elliott as Miss Slighcarp Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Rebecca Rayne as Bonnie and Julia Pagett as Sylvia Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Andrew Hollingworth as Simon Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase is a spooky Victorian tale adapted for the stage by Russ Tunney from the award-winning children's novel by Joan Aiken.

Published in 1962, the book is now something of a classic, loved by children and remembered with affection by adults, but I have to admit to it passing me by as an unenthusiastic young reader.

The story has all the ingredients of a rollicking children's thriller—a gritty young heroine, absent parents, a wicked governess, an old mansion house with secret passages, moors inhabited by wolves and just enough unreality to make sure there are no nightmares at bedtime.

The action takes place in 1832 in a mythical England ruled by King James III, with a re-arranged geography that is connected to mainland Europe by a tunnel through which the fearful wolves arrive, taking over the countryside.

When young Bonnie's father leaves their home at Willoughby Chase to take her ailing mother on a curative trip, he arranges for his orphaned niece Sylvia to come up from London to stay and employs a distant relation as a governess for the two girls.

It is this governess, who goes by the wonderful aptronym of Leticia Slighcarp, who is the baddy of the piece. In cahoots with the slimy cheese-referencing Mr Grimshaw, she plans to execute a covetous plan that will see her inherit the Chase and all the family wealth.

When the girls get in the way they are sent to live at the school-come-workhouse run by the gluttonous Gertrude Brisket, from where they are rescued by the resourceful young Simon who lives in the Willoughby Chase woods.

The trio run away to London where Slighcarp's evil plot is foiled and a happy ending arranged for everyone except the rascals who are assured their comeuppance.

In this stage adaptation, we get the core of the action with sprinklings of humour to draw a warm laugh from the adults: trains are delayed by wolves on the line and the children recite a terrific cheese alphabet to the Ofsted inspector.

Thick fog swirls around Karl Swinyard's set of walls and trees and some excellent musical composition by the talented Elliot Clay heaps on more atmosphere.

Rebecca Rayne is a feisty Bonnie with Julia Pagett as the timid cousin Sylvia who finds herself as the adventure develops, both bringing a naive charm to their roles.

It is one of the achievements of the adaptation that all the other characters in the story are played by only three actors: Andrew Hollingworth is principally the endearing hero Simon who sees the girls safely away to London and there is something slightly Addams Family about Adam Elliott's marvellous Miss Slighcarp who could snarl for Britain in the Olympics.

A comically energetic Bryan Pilkington plays Grimshaw, Gripe and Sir Willoughby but will be remembered by me as Gertrude Brisket.

Under the direction of the Jack Studio Theatre's artistic director, Kate Bannister, The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase is a warm-hearted and funny show for the young, the old and cheese-lovers everywhere.

(Performances Tuesday to Saturday, no performances from 24 to 27 December or 31 December to 2 January)

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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