The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, thrilling winter adventure that’s Norwich alternative to panto
- Credit: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts
Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre has a strong tradition of staging non-panto Christmas shows. Director of productions Jez Pike reveals all about this year's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, based on the book by Joan Aiken.
'What we offer isn't in opposition to panto, it just happens to be a bit different,' says Maddermarket director of productions Jez Pike, who having joined the Norwich theatre this year has taken charge of his first of their Christmas shows.
Having previously staged The Railway Children, The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe and last year George's Marvellous Medicine, the theatre has developed a strong reputation for its non-pantomime festive season productions.
This year they are staging The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a fast-paced winter adventure based on a celebrated children's book by Joan Aiken, through it also inspired big screen film in the 1980s starring Stephanie Beacham, and Mel Smith.
The children's fantasy story is one of Aiken's best known books and tells of the adventures of cousins Bonnie and Sylvia and their friend Simon the goose-boy as they thwart the evil schemes of their governess Miss Slighcarp.
Bonnie and Sylvia must escape the horrible Miss Slighcarp, and avoid the beasts as they make an epic journey through the snow.
'I read it as a boy when I was probably about eight or nine and it had always stuck in my head,' said Jez, who has directed the snow-filled adventure.
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'Later on I saw the film version, which is a bit odd if I'm honest. I'm not sure it is the best adaptation, but it has got Mel Smith who is quite amusing. So it was there in my consciousness but I didn't know that anyone had made a play of it.
When looking for Christmas shows ideas he discovered Russ Tunney's adaptation which was first staged at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton a few years ago and mostly sticks satisfyingly close to the book.
'I really enjoyed it when I read it,' adds Jez. 'It is clever in that it uses quite a lot of Joan Aiken's original text. You start off with how the book starts, which is 'once upon a time that never was...
'It has this classic Christmassy, slightly mysterious storytelling style. There are some things in the book that are quite hard to achieve on stage but that is part of the fun of doing it.
'There is this quite important scene in which the two young girls go skating. That is always fun to try to stage. A lot of the book is also a journey as they go across the country on their way home and the play handles that really well. It keeps the loose feel of the book.
People who remember the book will remember it being, as children's stories go, quite spooky and an atmospheric world and it keeps that but as the adaptation goes on its fun and it becomes fast and has some quite clever theatrical slapstick and people playing different roles and at the end it is very silly. It involves the cast doing a lot of running, which they are not thanking me for.'
Read our review of The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe production doesn't hide its bookish origins — indeed the set design, which includes projections and atmospheric sound design, features a giant book with pages that turn as the story unfolds.
'One of the fun things, and why I like the adaptation, is that it never pretends that it doesn't come from a book,' explains Jez. 'You still very much get that sense of, as I remember as a boy, being huddled under the covers, a little bit scared at times but enthralled by this engrossing story.
'At Christmas time particularly, when that tradition of storytelling is so strong, it is nice to feel that you are being led through a story that has lots of twists and turns. We also have bit of a chorus, who are there in the original text, but which I have brought out as an entity in the play. They are a bit mysterious, sometimes a bit cheeky and on the audience's side, sometimes squabble amongst themselves, but they basically dictate how you move through the story.'
The chorus is being played by David Newham, Charmaine Pullman and Etta Geras, while Deryn Andrews plays Bonnie, Tim Burton the dastardly Grimshaw and Tim Lane is the villainous Miss Slighcarp.
'The youngest is 18 and we have some veterans who between them have done close to 30 Christmas shows,' said Jez. 'Not everyone loves doing Christmas shows because it is a huge commitment, but people who do tend to be addicts. They love the atmosphere with the audience and backstage that don't get in quite the same way in other shows.'
The atmospheric setting and wolves meant the team had to balance making the story spooky enough for older audiences members, but not too scary for youngsters. It is aimed at ages seven and over.
'That is one of the challenges but one of the exciting things of making family theatre,' said Jez on the challenge of getting the right tone. 'You are catering for many different ages but also many different imaginations.
'I have learnt from directing family shows previously that you need to move things quite quickly and have a lot of stimulus happening. The imaginations of younger children and those who are slightly older are held by different things.
'One of the reasons why I loved this book is because it has those spooky elements and in most of the great children's stories the child protagonists tend to go through some pretty hairy stuff, if you think of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Peter Pan.
'You tend to get a lot of orphans in children's stories too, and there are orphans in this as well, but they are always plucky and brave and meet people who help them along the way.
'So I've been aware when directing this, where there are scary bits with wolves and atmospheric lighting and sound, you know it isn't going to last too long. You might be on the edge of your seat but very quickly a friendly character appears.'
On why the Maddermarket prefers not to stage a traditional panto, Jez adds: 'I hope it is just about exciting stories that engage families.
'To try to appeal to four generations is quite a task and I think the way that you do it is to have a really good story, well written and a style that is accessible. Then you can just have fun with it and I'm not averse to having some nods to panto. It's that time of year so there is some of that in this show — chances to boo anyway!'
• The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is at Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, until December 31, £15/£10, £42 family (£21 one adult/child), 01603 620917, maddermarket.co.uk