The Wolves of Willoughby Chase & Pinocchio at Greenwich Theatre

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase & Pinocchio at Greenwich Theatre

Serena Murfitt reviews the latest performances at Greenwich Theatre.

For a lot of kids, tailored summer performances alongside panto and Christmas specials, are the gateway into enjoying theatre as an adult.  It is probably more important that we get them right therefore, than it is for your average stage production aimed at adults. Luckily we have two excellent examples on offer at Greenwich Theatre for the summer holidays so, while acknowledging that I am probably NOT a part of their intended target audience, the big kid in me jumped at the chance to pop down this week and partake in a double bill comprising The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – a new one on me – and the more familiar Pinocchio, both directed by the theatre’s James Haddrell.

In keeping with all the performances I have seen thus far at Greenwich Theatre, the staging remains simple while a very talented cast set the scene, ably assisted by lighting and special effects.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase quickly settles into the patterns and rhythms children will be familiar with from pantomime – a musical introduction to the cast, a clear delineation of the heroes and the villains of the piece (children Bonnie and Sylvia, assisted by the Buttons-esque servant James and Simon the goose boy – yay!; panto dame governess Miss Slighcarp showing a nod to Les Dawson for those of us old enough to remember him, and the mysterious stranger Mr Grimshaw – boo!).

As it is based on the book by Joan Aiken, the scenes played out on stage for the key story points are conveniently helped along by spoken narrative to carry the story through to its conclusion in the short hour and a half slot necessary to keep the attention of even the youngest audience member. A small team of seven actors brilliantly slips between multiple roles, taking the audience along with them – until they choose not to. This was the big standout for me in the play and what made it different from your standard fare –  Haddrell’s use of increasingly frequent breaks in the fourth wall to include stage crew and audience, and to allow the actors to break character from time to time. This may have been the source of some confusion for very young audience members – one was heard to say he thought things had gone a bit wrong in a post-show chat – but they were the source of great hilarity for adults and older children, especially when the cast all gathered at the side of the stage flicking through script pages in a most confused manner while Lord Willoughby delivered a monologue centre stage. I’ll avoid giving the rest away beyond applauding the clever use of a blanket towards the end of the show. Please watch for yourselves and enjoy!

Ultimately, in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase, your heroes triumph, your villains are scuppered and the audience go away happy. If that isn’t the recipe for a successful afternoon’s entertainment then I don’t know what is.

The second show in the double bill was Pinocchio, and for this we saw a more traditional form of storytelling on stage.  For those of us brought up with the saccharine Disney version, be warned, as the play is based on the 1883 story by Carlo Collodi and there are some marked differences which become obvious when we are introduced to the talking Cricket as Grillo not Jiminy (Il Grillo Parlante literally means ‘The Talking Cricket’ in Italian. We were at least spared the grisly end Collodi included for Grillo though – look it up!). The fox and cat characters also take their names from the original text – Volpino and Fellino – but we have the comforting familiarity of Gepetto.

The essential tenets and moral compass consistent in all adaptations of Pinocchio remain here – magical talking boy carved from wood who has to learn about the world around him and navigate his way between physical lands of right and wrong and temptation and temperance, guided by his conscience in the form of Grillo, and ultimately by his love of his creator and father Gepetto.

Unlike Willoughby Chase, Pinocchio stays true to the somewhat darker tone we find in early children’s tales and as such is probably more engaging for a slightly older audience and provides more of a second step into the world of adult theatre than an introduction.

My advice? See both shows in an afternoon as I did, and enjoy a walk around Greenwich and lunch in between. You won’t be disappointed.