Wolves At the Window
Toby Davies, after Saki
Saki (H.H. Munro) was a master of the short story, creating satirical and sometimes macabre reflections of the Edwardian society in which he lived. Toby Davies tells more than a dozen of them in this dramatisation that interweaves and elides them to create a delightful entertainment. They range from those of Tobermory the talking cat with nine lives but only one liver to the story of Lena Strudwarden's Pomeranian Louis and Mrs Packletide's tiger; from the unfairness in the success of breakfast cereal Filboid Studge to the cruelty of deceit in The Open Window.
In the darkness that opens the show there is high wind, howling wolves and a terrified scream but the main emphasis is on Saki's bitter wit as he dissects the self-interest of the fashionable middle-classes. There are wolves, real furry-coated ones as well as those in velvet smoking jackets and silk gowns - but here even the nice people give us a glimpse of vindictiveness and deciding to be good seems to be followed by disaster. Just one bitter piece about Europe's need of the Balkans to play war in didn't work for me, a touch too sardonic two world wars later? It killed my laughter without raising my anger: maybe it's too long before you realise it's deadly serious, maybe I just was enjoying the rest too much to take it.
This is a free treatment of the stories that creates its own overlaps and changes gender to suit the casting. Some of the dialogue is Saki's but skilful dramatised with Davies introducing his own material so that it sounds like Saki: just one example, a description of cheap soap having 'the unmistakable smell of economy' that is not in the original story. Thomas Hescott's production and the economy of Maureen Freedman's design capture the same spirit, especially in the handling of some of Saki's animals. It is cleverly dressed, not only to change from character to character but to add a sharp edge to their appearance that matches the high style of the playing.
The cast of four do a splendid job in keeping it real and not tipping things over into crude caricature - even when Sarah Moyle is being posher than posh as she bags her first tiger, and managing to make a distinction between all her upper class ladies. Anna Francolini is delightful as her downtrodden companion, turning to blackmail, a couple of blatant liars and a reconciled feuder. Jeremy Booth joins her as a smooth adulterer, the pompous cereal maker and a Pan-worshipping convert to country-life, while Gus Brown has some of the more put upon characters and does a fine job as Tobermory - but its worth going just to see the two men as a goat set out as bait and an elderly tiger. Like the whole show they are created with the greatest economy - just a pair of white kid ladies boots and two thin walking canes - but there is not the slightest 'scent of economy' about the effect they create!
At the Arcola until 21st June 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton