Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aitken, was directed by Jan Rae with Paul Grimwood as Musical Director and was performed at St. Barnabas Hall, Dulwich Village on 17th, 19th, 20th and 22nd December, 2014.

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Review by Sophie Taylor

It was a unseasonably mild December evening when I put down my worries about Christmas presents, parties and food to make my way to St. Barnabas Hall, in the very festive Dulwich Village, to see the latest Dulwich Players' offering, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase an adaptation of the book by Joan Aitken.

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The cast did a stellar job. It was great to see two (still fairly new) young members take on the lead roles, with both Ally Shaw as Bonnie and Sylvia Ford as Sylvia managing to thoroughly convince us that they were a pair of adventurous children, thrown into a scary world of evil grown-ups, a  household under threat and tyrannical orphanages from which they must escape and ensure the villains' comeuppance. 

Gill Daly, as the evil Miss Slighcarp, and her side-kick Josiah Grimshaw, played by Joshua Bradley-Hall, were fantastic. Both gave energetic performances delivered with great pace. David Sanger and Alice Plein, as the girls' allies (James and Simon respectively) were both delightful as the helpful 'goodies' in the play (and Alice, like a number of others, has really beautiful voice - note for future musical productions!). The other members of the cast, who played the narrators and also each took on additional smaller roles, are also to be congratulated. As I watched the narrated scenes and sections, with lines that overlapped and interjected as well as were spoken in chorus, all I could think was 'I bet that took a lots of practise to get right!'. And get it right they did, with not one slip up, and every word clear in chorus – no mean feat!

If there is criticism to be had, it was at times very difficult to hear some of the lines. St Barnabas is a big and high-ceilinged hall; mix this with a live band, and the cast had their work cut out for them in their projection. A task that wasn't met at all times as quite a few lines were difficult to hear. 

Having said that, the particular highlight for me was the staging; something I commonly say with productions directed by Jan Rae. The scenes on the train used drum sounds and voice sound effects to emulate the sounds of the steam trains' motion and doors opening and closing, as the actor's moved in time to the ta-tat ta-tat of their journey. When Bonnie and Sylvia went ice-skating, only to be chased by the dreaded wolves, I loved their ice skating miming as they were surrounded by a semi-circle of tree branches and fog surrounded them; the wolves menacingly stalking their progress. The atmosphere was suitably chilling, with dry ice, lots of dark shadows and some brilliant props that simulated wolves' eyes peering at us from a distance. The band were great and Paul Grimwood deserves a hearty pat on the back. 

At so many points during the play, I thought 'oh that's clever' as well as 'I wouldn't have thought of doing that'. Even with a classic hall and a raised stage, Jan Rae used all the space available and lots of different dimensions and devices, so that every scene felt new and different. All in all, a wonderful production that was an added bonus to the Christmas break.