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  • Miles Hedley

THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE online with Greenwich Theatre

The Christmas lockdown forced Greenwich Theatre to close its doors days before its production of the children’s classic The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase was due to open to packed houses. It must have been a bitter blow to everyone involved. But in the finest spirit of showbiz, director James Haddrell and his cast vowed that the show must go on, so they filmed a dress rehearsal and posted it online. The result is an utter joy.

Despite rigorous social distancing and a decision not to make any allowances for the camera, this 90-minute celebration of the power of theatre is gripping, inspiring, original and, best of all, enormous fun.

Haddrell opens the action in a school where six youngsters are acting – wonderfully badly – in a classroom semi-dramatisation of Joan Aiken’s beloved novel.

The schoolroom scene neatly segues into a recreation of a 19th century train journey to a snowbound aristocratic estate beset by marauding packs of wolves where a wicked governess arranges the deaths of the owners, uses a fake will to disinherit rightful heir Bonnie, seizes the property for herself and sends Bonnie and her cousin to a boarding school so savage that Charles Dickens would have envied its creation.

Of course, there is a happy ending – the governess and her sidekicks are exposed, Bonnie’s mum and dad survive and the children live happily ever after. But Russ Tunney’s gleefully gothic adaptation of the book keeps the bleakness to the fore until the very end, filling the tale with the darkest of humour and pots of panto wickedness.

Which is hardly surprising given that the governess is played by Greenwich’s favourite panto villain Anthony Spargo, a man who has turned cartoon evil into an artform. His is a masterly performance.

And he’s brilliantly supported by the ensemble - Alice De-Warrenne, Cassandra Hercules, Serin Ibrahim, Akshay Khanna and Reice Weathers, with special mention to David Haller whose songs and performance as a sort of minstrel narrator helps to keep the multi-scene narrative flowing seamlessly.

This is a tremendous piece of feel-good family entertainment, offering something for everyone. The ingenuity of Haddrell’s production design kept me riveted from start to finish – although I’d like to have heard a few more wolves.

There are hopes that a live production might be possible in the coming year, Covid permitting. If that happens, book a seat for your family at all costs – they’ll love you for it.

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