It’s easy to see why Hampstead Theatre’s artistic director Anthony Clark chose Ian Whybrow’s popular story, Little Wolf's Book of Badness to adapt and direct for this year’s seasonal family show. Its delicious premise is that at home with the Wolves, it’s bad to be good – parents award brownie points for being bad!
So while Little Wolf’s brother and cousin set shining examples by wolfing down their food and ignoring their Ps and Qs, he’s in the wolf house for cleaning his teeth, tidying his room - and behaving with disastrous politeness.
His despairing parents decide to send him to learn the Nine Rules of Badness from Uncle Big Bad (there’s a whole pack of wolf jokes), principal of Cunning College, an institution more terrifying even than Dotheboys Hall, as Little Wolf discovers after a journey scarcely less arduous than Nicholas Nickleby’s. Beset by buzzards and belaboured by anti-fur protesters failing to recognise his animal rights to his pelt, he artfully dodges Mister Twister the Fox’s efforts to enslave him on his fancy-dress stall. But the privations of the journey – dutifully recorded in daily letters home – pale next to his sufferings at the paws of Uncle Big Bad – the greediest, wickedest wolf ever.
Good-natured, resourceful Little Wolf wins through – with a little help from a pack of cub scouts. And he and his parents discover that you can’t be bad – or good – all the time; you must be yourself.
It’s a charming tale with just the right amount of scary stuff for very young audiences. Grant Stimpson’s rascally snarling Big Bad elicits delighted squeals and we duck as the buzzard puppets swoop over us seeking their prey.
Costumes are effectively anthropomorphic, with caps incorporating animal muzzles and wonderfully bushy tails, which the cast swing expertly, each catching the right movement quality for their animal characters. Ilan Goodman makes a constantly engaging Little Wolf and Ann Marcuson a warm, anxious mother wolf. She also has fun as Red Goodie Hoodie, even more dutiful than Little Wolf (Big Bad gets his comeuppance of course, masquerading as her grandma). Darrell Brockis and Christopher Staines relish all their roles, both animal and human, and the Youth Theatre provide jolly cub scouts.
But although there’s much to enjoy, the pace could be faster. Mother Wolf reading out letters home works well at first, but eventually slows down the action. And Conor Linehan’s charming songs are wonderfully executed by these accomplished actor/musicians, they’re strangely static, especially as Liz Cooke’s adventure playground set dominates the action and you long to see everyone sliding down the chutes!
- Judi Herman