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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase review at Jack Studio Theatre, London – ‘mischievous sense of humour’

Rebecca Rayne and Julia Pagett in The Wolves of WIlloughby Chase at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes/Grey Swan Rebecca Rayne and Julia Pagett in The Wolves of WIlloughby Chase at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes/Grey Swan
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Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (first published in 1962) is a tale that has it all: intrepid orphans, a manor house full of secret passages, dastardly villains and plenty of adventure. This delightful stage adaptation by Russ Tunney is the theatrical equivalent of storytime with cocoa around the fire on a cold winter’s night, involving the right amount of whimsy and a mischievous sense of humour.

With echoes of Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and Frances Hodgson Burnett, the story eschews supernatural forces but is nevertheless set in an otherworldly realm, in an England that never was, in the time of King James III, where wolves terrorise the countryside. Kate Bannister’s fleet-footed production skates along at a brisk pace, in keeping with its young heroines’ determined mindsets, and pursuit of warmth and safety.

There are spirited and non-saccharine performances from Rebecca Rayne as the headstrong Bonnie and Julia Pagett as her timid cousin Sylvia, as they escape the clutches of evil governess Miss Slighcarp. With his Miss Trunchbull-esque portrayal, Adam Elliott could sneer for England, supported by Bryan Pilkington as twisted lawyer Mr Grimshaw (doubling in full grotesque mode as a sadistic, cheese-obsessed orphanage matron).

Andrew Hollingworth is all goodness as kindly servant James, as well as Simon, a boy with a special relationship with nature. The production is imbued with the natural world in the deep midwinter with its haunting use of folk music and vulpine soundscape, and a crisp design of panels and trees.

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A wintry warmer in the comfortingly chilly company of wolves