Wolfboy

Book by Russell Labey from the play Love and Human Remains by Brad Fraser, music and lyrics by Leon Parris
Trafalgar Studios 2
(2010)

Wolfboy is for people whose musicals theatre choices don't have to involve flared trousers, dancing or happy endings. In fact it couldn't be much less pink or sparkly. It is dark and troubling, and one in the eye of those that assert that musical theatre as a genre is not up to the task of addressing difficult topics.

And Wolfboy is not short of those. Two young men find themselves confined in a boys home: David believes he has the powers of a wolf and Bernie has attempted suicide. Having neighbouring rooms is what brings them together but their friendship grows because of what they share - a history of neglect, abuse and exploitation, and unhopeful futures.

Strong visual images, physical violence and descriptions of abuse coalesce into a harrowing mass that only awkwardly can be described as entertaining but certainly holds your attention.

This four-hander has moments as gripping as any thriller but musically it is less cogent. Three of the four have singing parts and the piece is partially sung-through leaving the cynic in me wondering whether the choice between sung and spoken depended on the paucity of the words: the characters all talk appropriately in the vernacular but there is some uninteresting writing here of the 'I'm a loser in disguise ... she saw it in my eyes' type.

The music is pre-recorded which inevitably diminishes the experience somewhat, allows no flexibility and requires the actors to wear mics even in a venue as small as this, all of which is a shame. The score provides a fitting backdrop to the unfolding drama but is mostly un-striking. There are no stand-alone numbers and only one or two low-key hooks, and in any case the disturbing subject matter makes this a soundtrack I would not play for entertainment, though there is one funny piece sung by the two lads about Penthouse magazine.

I am no follower of TV soap-operas but I can understand the commercial interest in having soap stars in the theatre and this production has two from Hollyoaks. Emma Rigby makes her stage debut as Cherry the nurse and Paul Holowaty plays David. Rigby has the disadvantage of a largely expendable sub-plot in her relationship with Bernie's brother, whilst Holowaty has to convince us that David is capable of tenderness and barbarity.

Without attempting or intending to make any points I found the stronger performances came from Daniel Boys and Gregg Lowe as brothers Christian and Bernie. Boys has the stronger voice of the two and risked drowning Lowe's when they sang together but Lowe's delivery of the pivotal number was shockingly moving.

Based on a play by Canadian writer Brad Fraser, Wolfboy has been written and is directed by Russell Labey (who last year directed his adaptation of New Boy in the same venue). The narrative is strangely handled in parts with the relationships between David and Bernie and Bernie and Christian running very much in parallel but not equally developed. Furthermore Christian delivers important plot points to a doctor never seen on stage which adds to a sense that his character has been stuck on the side rather than forming part of an integral whole.

Nevertheless Labey as director manages the pacing and tension of the piece very well and I was engrossed as was the rest of the audience notable by it stillness.

"Wolfboy" plays until 31st July 2010. There is no interval and running time is one and a half hours.

Sandra Giorgetti