Left – Patrick-Graham and Emma J Hawkins. Photo – Tony Lewis
Having closed 2013 with Neil Armfield’s splendid production of The Book of Everything, the Melbourne Theatre Company begins the new year with another play for children. Aimed at a slightly younger audience, Big Bad Wolf is just as charming a tale, and if it doesn’t have quite the depth of The Book of Everything, it is, nonetheless, a vibrant theatrical experience for children aged five years and older.
Wolfy is not your typical ‘big bad wolf’. A poetry-loving vegematarian, all Wolfy wants is a friend. But in Alarmsville, where Wolfy lives, the presence of a wolf signals danger, and the onus is on Alarmsville’s citizens to sound a warning whenever a wolf comes near.
It looks like the only friend Wolfy will ever have is an itinerant flea from Milwaukee, but when he stumbles on the cottage of Heidi Hood, distant relation of Little Red Riding Hood, Wolfy’s life seems about to change.
An overachiever of the first rank – winner of numerous town awards from best toothbrusher to most accomplished starer – Heidi has the finest wolf warning system in Alarmsville. But, like Wolfy, what she doesn’t have is a friend, and so an unlikely alliance is born.
Writer Matthew Whittet has enormous respect for his audience, and what he gives them here is a tale that is both sweet and funny; one that taps into many of the troubles all of us – whether adults or children – face. And in the character of Wolfy, he gives us a hero whose muddles and insecurities are easily recognisable.
In his program notes, Whittet writes of wanting to explore a character who is misunderstood; who is excluded simply because he looks a little different. But what Whittet also brings to the play is a desire to share with his audience the joy of words and poetry. As Wolfy himself says, “When I have lovely thoughts, my mind fills with lovely words.”
All this bubbles through the surface of the play, and the young audience certainly revels in Wolfy’s poetry, though there is perhaps room for Whittet to have a bit more fun with the wordplay and for director Rosemary Myers to give the poetry a keener edge in the playing.
If the play is let down by anything, it’s the failure to better establish Alarmville’s prejudice against wolves. There’s too much reliance on preconceptions the audience itself brings to the play, and there’s not enough in what’s presented on the stage to convince us that this is a town that hates and fears wolves, nor that Wolfy would ever truly get mistaken for a wolf of the ‘big, bad’ variety. Friends, when they are found, are found too readily, and there’s not sufficient friction between Wolfy and the townsfolk to make us genuinely apprehensive about whether or not Wolfy is likely to succeed in his quest to be accepted.
Having Wolfy’s mother hold the position of Grand Wolfmaster is a nice idea, though the realisation of this relationship, and the pressure Wolfy’s mother puts on him to conform to the ‘big bad wolf’ stereotype, isn’t sufficiently convincing. It’s a pity, because had we feared Wolfy a little more at the beginning of the play, and had more of an insight into the expectations loaded on him by his family, then his revelation as a vegematarian poet would have had the pay-off it deserved.
Patrick Graham brings a delightful vulnerability to the role of Wolfy, and Emma J Hawkins has an infectious energy as Heidi Hood. Both Graham and Hawkins build a secure connection with their audience, and at the performance I saw, you could almost feel the youngsters willing Wolfy and Heidi to succeed.
Puppetry is used to good effect – animating trees and couches – to surprise and charm the audience, though it might have been more extensively employed. And the set (Jonathon Oxlade) is nicely reminiscent of old storybooks and cottages tucked away deep in the woods.
While it doesn’t have quite enough bite to keep you on the edge of your seat, Big Bad Wolf is still a very endearing play, and there are few theatregoers – adult and children alike – who will fail to be won over by a creation as warm-hearted and affable as Wolfy.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents a Windmill Theatre production
BIG BAD WOLF
by Matthew Whittet
Directed by Rosemary Myers
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
Dates: 10 – 25 January 2014
Bookings: Southbank Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au