Wolfie – Tron Theatre

Written by Ross Willis

Directed by Joanna Bowman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, San, and now ‘A’.

Their upbringings were, in some ways, a touch hairy. And whilst their environments are strikingly different to the conventional manner of childhood, they nevertheless find a sense of nurture – even if only for a time with their Lupus families. But that’s all a touch too sentimental for this show. This show isn’t child friendly. It isn’t polite. It isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s still a story for anyone. This show wants to know why things are so screwed up; why children are being raised by animals, why is the forest left with the paperwork? And how even as a child cries, there is no one to answer their tears.

To unfurl the pages of a fairytale all theatre requires is a script, performers, and an audience hungry for a tale. In this case, an extraordinary story. With rather extraordinary performances. Ross Willis’ Wolfie, an intense and explosive play crafted in 2019, makes its Scottish debut in Glasgow at the Tron Theatre. It charters the lives of two young women, daughters to a struggling single mother, traversing their antics from flittering beings in the womb before their birth and separation to their growth and, hopefully, their eventual reunion.

Willis’ stylised language controls the production for its two-hour runtime, and the sharpness and rhythmic usage of a near elegiac structure ensures the continued fantastical elements ripple across both stories – even as the mundanity of the everyday becomes more concurrent. Directed by Tron associate director Joanna Bowman, Wolfie finds two young girls – ‘A’ and ‘Z’ hoping for an initially promising life with their human mother, quickly soured by the lovelessness which spawns soon-after as she struggles to care for them. After being collected by a skeletal, boney man, and placed in the care of a woman winking into the bathtub, beleaguered by her manic state of depression and numbness the two are separated: ‘Z’ remains within the neglectful adoptive household, ‘A’ finds themselves among a four-footed upbringing following a Grimm encounter with her adoptive father, the darkness of the woods, and her abandonment.

Regardless of the fantastical elements, this, like an authentic fairy tale, is as real as possible in its inspirations of the difficulties of young people in the care system, its severe limitations and the value of identity. This dizzying voyage of pure theatricality is a bold adventure which grabs audiences by the scruff of their necks, shaking them and demanding the answers to who is responsible for society’s most vulnerable and deprived children.

Much to the ire of those desperate to catch Willis’ production, the limited seating results in a fully sold-out run, with a smaller capacity at these showings. It’s sad to say for those unable to have secured seats – but Bowman’s structure of staging Wolfie grasps audiences most imaginatively and effectively. This small, claustrophobic circle of chairs in the Tron Changing House places us at eye level with the performers – we can sense the despair, share in their joy, smell the determination, and feel the heat from the snarls. And while the quality of the script and performances would work on a traditional staging – it would dilute the imagination and empathy exuding from everyone in this space. There’s a niggle towards the finale, one where the words fall too frequently – a worry the audience isn’t quite catching up as fast as the performers are moving, the slightest of issues in an otherwise glorious demonstration of pacing and writing.

Movement is crucial – and the lengths to which Bowman and movement director Jack Webb has performers Leah Byrne and Anna Russell-Martin chase their tails around the Changing House is exasperating, yet immensely effective. The pair are the lifeblood, its padded paws and bared teeth of Wolfie. But they’re also the innocence and pure enjoyment which make the show as much of a pleasure to watch as it is difficult. There isn’t a moment where the weight of the role isn’t sitting on the expressive face of Russell-Martin or in the tear-streaked eyes of Byrne.

And though the pair are far from strangers to the Scottish stage, Wolfie feels a turning point in ensuring the light of the industry remains fixed upon them: especially Byrne, who, from Cinderella to Moonset, is fast demonstrating a canny range of variety and determination. The comradery the pair share is tangible – Russell-Martin’s shades of compassion and Byrne’s heart-wrenchingly bittersweet moments emanate on the stage are as harrowing as it is uplifting. 

But do not for a moment think this makes Willis’ writing an entirely bleak production – why, even in the grimmest of fairy tales a small “sparkle” retains the magic and dazzling hopes of something, anything better. And Colin Grenfell’s lighting is among the tightest designs to strike the emotional pitch perfectly – reinforcing every expressive movement from Byrne and Russel-Martin as they hurtle around, briefly pausing for a moment of serendipity, a fragile, mundane moment of simply being a child, all set to Danny Krass’ sound design.

Howling with aggression, thundering on all fours into the night under a canopy of riotous colour – Wolfie is far from a mere contemporary fairy-tale – it’s a spectacle of the here and now: foodbanks, care workers, bureaucracy and laceratingly humorous. The power of movement and unpredictable nature of performance is deftly controlled by Bowman’s steady hand, who refrains from this production being polite or sincere – instead, it’s a raw, poignant, and foaming-at-the-mouth work of art.

Foaming at the Mouth

Wolfie runs at the Tron Theatre until May 13th. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.45pm. Matinees at 14.25pm on Wednesday and Saturday.
Runs for two hours with one interval. 

Tickets begin from £10.00 and may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Mihaela Bodlovic


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