Review: Wolfie (Theatre503)

Ross Willis’ play has its world premiere in south London, with a cast composed of Sophie Melville and Erin Doherty

Sophie Melville and Erin Doherty
Sophie Melville and Erin Doherty
© Helen Murray

Tragedy and comedy sit side by side as sorry sisters in Ross Willis' debut play Wolfie, which premieres at south London's bastion of new writing Theatre503. Laugh-out-loud funny yet never hesitating to be brutally honest when necessary, this is a bold start from the award-winner Willis, surely one worth keeping a beady eye on.

Wolfie follows two boiler-suit sporting twins, known only as A (Sophie Melville) and Z (Erin Doherty), as they are separated at a very young age. Z is raised by a despondent, bathtub-abiding mother, while A is taken to the forest and mothered by a wolf, residing among a panoply of sentient and very opinionated animals and shrubbery.

Like Wise Children cross-pollinated with Where the Wild Things Are with an extra sucker punch of contemporary resonance, this is a play about those left behind, those unloved or lost. A and Z's lives continue, they drift apart and confront individual challenges – the inability to find work, or the prospect of two unexpected children.

Willis' drama is packed with oddball ideas and quirky sequences, be it a silver mansplaining mannequin, an extended monologue involving a whole copse of excitable conversational trees (all played by Doherty) or a Scottish woodpecker-turned-social worker.

The constant fantasy and whimsy can sometimes sit uneasily next to Willis' comments on the realities of the care system, but his language is so intoxicatingly novel that it all flows by, even if a few of the conclusions ("Love is the most powerful force on earth!" Z exclaims at the end of the play) feel a bit basic compared to the in-depth conceptual explorations that come before.

Theatre503's artistic director Lisa Spirling brings out the unrelenting frantic energy of Willis' script while never shying away from the simmering melancholy lying beneath, all the more impressive for a two-hander clocking in at a solid two-hour runtime. There's a joyful simplicity to the blue and pink hues of Basia Bińkowska's set, with the cast running amok up and down the aisles – the whole space feeling like a breathing organic entity.

It's hard to find any form of fault with Melville and Doherty, who are so synaptically on the same level with their performances that their sororal bond is never in doubt. Even during the moments when Willis' script falls slightly short, it's the two of them carrying on with the same, jaw-clenching devotion to both each other and the necessity of telling their story.

The laughs come both easily and uneasily as the show goes from A to Z, from fantasy to harrowing reality, from opening to close.