Joan Aiken’s classic gothic adventure story is a steampunk homage to Victorian literature set in an alternative 1830s “in an England that didn’t exist” where the country has been overrun with wolves following the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Russ Tunney’s stage version was first performed in 2010 by Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre, with several productions since, now taking the festive slot at London Fringe venue the Jack Studio Theatre under Artistic Director Kate Bannister.
The tale, first published in 1962, could outdo Harry Potter for villainy and heroism. Two girls, Bonnie and her orphan cousin Sylvia are sent across country to Willoughby Chase, which has been taken over by their evil governess Miss Slighcarp, who sends them to a ghastly orphanage. Half starved, they escape and travel to London, pursued across wintry wastelands by wolves and myriad dangers, to face down their tormentors. The bold outlines of the characters are strongly drawn with some doubling from the five actors. A stark unity of design, direction and movement sets up a chilly sense of danger and menace.
As it goes on, elements of song and dance loom larger, and the recurring dark cabaret musical refrain of “Ridiculous! Ridiculous! Really quite ridiculous!” weighs heavier as the action becomes increasingly stylized. Some jarring anachronistic humour, “I love the smell of burning toys in the morning”, felt gratuitous, as the wintry atmosphere and subtle menace of the first half slid into campy self-referentiality and pantomime.
Adam Elliott is appropriately leering and scowling as the sinister governess Miss Slighcarp, but the cross-casting is distracting. Was it too much to expect with not one but two female protagonists (Bonnie and Sylvia, played sympathetically by Rebecca Rayne and Julia Pagett) that their female antagonist might be played by a female as well?
You could call it “sinister panto”. The show is divided between scariness and silliness, teetering between the atmospheric menace and thrill of the story, and self-referential touches that expose the dramatic machinery. But the alternate world of white wastelands and wolves is chillingly evoked, and the eventual triumph of the young girls over Aiken’s treacherous authority figures leaves a warm feeling.
Reviewed by AJ Dehany