This inventive, enjoyably spooky kids’ show is the first chance London has had to sample the work of the newly formed National Theatre of Scotland, a curious establishment with no permanent home, but a mission – and an annual £4m grant – to bolster and commission new work with existing companies.
The Wolves in the Walls, appropriately sub-titled “a musical pandemonium”, is a 70-minute co-production with Improbable Theatre – the directors are NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone and Improbable’s Julian Crouch (of Shockheaded Peter renown) – adapted from the arresting, beautifully illustrated 2003 story by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.
Lucy hears noises in the walls. Her jam-making mother, tuba-playing father and video games-watching brother all dismiss her wolfish premonitions as the scratchings of mice, rats or bats. “If the wolves come out of the walls,” runs their refrain, “then it’s all over.” It soon is. The wolves burst through and displace the family who decamp to the bottom of the garden. They even kidnap Lucy’s sweet little pig puppet, her comforter and joy. The family fights back, the wolves are defeated. Lucy wonders if elephants are now in the walls…
The show is a brilliant response to the original’s artwork, using moving flats like shields for the trapped animals, the colours of ochre, rust and grey blue to define a strange semi-realistic domesticity and the plangent music of Nick Powell to enunciate fear, dismay, reassurance. The wolverine beasts are elaborate, scrawny grey arm puppets, entwined around four visible human manipulators, who then shrink inside comical head-pieces. It’s the best kind of puppetry, strange and funny.
Within the limitations of the current anti-intellectual infantilism in “experimental” work, the show is as good as it gets. Frances Thorburn is a sympathetic Lucy, less enchanting than the book’s heroine, but effective. Iain Johnstone and Cora Bissett are her parents, Ryan Fletcher a delightful pain of a brother.
The central rumble, with family and pig puppet writhing around in an orgy of wolf moans and bobbing limbs is a hoot, and the highlight is the wolves’ party where the beasts come out to play, checking on each other like a bunch of Little Red Riding Hood’s gurning grannies.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The Wolves in the Walls plays at London’s Lyric Hammersmith until 29 April 2006 before resuming a Scottish tour in Perth, Stirling, Kirkcaldy and Ayr.