Review: The Wolves (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)

Sarah DeLappe’s first play has its UK premiere as part of Nadia Fall’s first season

The cast of The Wolves
The cast of The Wolves
© Manuel Harlan

It's hard to believe that this is Sarah DeLappe's first play, so vivid are the characters, so sophisticated the dramaturgy, and so sparky but authentic the dialogue. An acclaimed off-Broadway hit last year, this deceptively simple depiction of a teenage girls soccer team in small-town America comes on like a breath of fresh air.

Superficially, it is reminiscent of the recent Almeida success, Clare Barron's Dance Nation, with its fierce, potty-mouthed young women in simultaneous thrall to their hormones, loyalty to their peers, and the excitement of competition. The Wolves (the title comes from the name of the soccer team) is the sweeter, more affecting and, arguably, more straightforward play however. In 90 swift, lean, engrossing minutes we get snapshots of these nine girls – identified in the programme not by their names but by the numbers on their team shirts – hobbling in their soccer boots towards womanhood. It's extremely funny, often crude, beautifully observed…and in the end, quietly devastating.

As they go about their (exhausting looking) training, the girls discuss their friendships, family relationships, and such hot-button modern issues as the parlous immigration procedures in present day America or the problems of racial assimilation. They may be talking about the big stuff of life but it always sounds impressively natural, unselfconsciously ‘woke'. They're a stroppy, questioning, naive, likeable bunch, performed with utter conviction by a fine young cast. There is an irresistible freshness to DeLappe's tangy writing and Ellen McDougall's slick production that ensures that the focus never wavers despite an absence of any conventional storytelling until the final – cleverly plotted but slightly mawkish – fifteen minutes.

If at first the team divides rather too conveniently into a succession of well-worn tropes – there's the mysterious misfit, the grimly competitive one, the tactless tomboy, the cheerfully promiscuous one and her scolding sidekick, the intense brooder, the troubled player with an eating disorder – a couple of minutes in their company reveals unsuspected depths and quirks. The girls squabble, casually betray or offend, then support each other, and coalesce exhilaratingly as the match or an unexpected life development looms into view.

Annabel Baldwin touchingly conveys the eager-to-please watchfulness of a well travelled new arrival to the team and the town, patiently explaining that she lives in a yurt not a yogurt, and Rosie Sheehy is a raucous delight as the rabble rouser whose tactlessness masks a kindly spirit. Shalisha James-Davis is hilarious as the sort of teenager who can go from passionately discussing poverty and starvation in one moment to screaming about a newly formed pimple in the next. There's superb work from Francesca Henry and Seraphina Beh as a pair of contrastingly troubled team members, and from Rosabell Laurenti Sellers and Lauren Grace as permanently scrapping best mates. Nina Bowers is enchantingly gawky and adorable as a guileless player whose sweet exuberance is tempered by the inconvenient (to her) fact that both her parents are therapists. There isn't a weak link in the cast: "team work can make the dream work" as Hannah Jarrett-Scott's hilariously humourless skipper grimly intones at one point.

Team sport as life metaphor is hardly an original dramatic conceit but few such scripts have the refreshing wit and ingenuity of The Wolves. It's a lot of fun but it cuts surprisingly deep. Very highly recommended, and leaves one eager to see what Ms DeLappe comes up with next. She's a bright, bold new voice in American playwriting, and this debut is a little gem.