If it is too sweeping a claim to make that Theatre503 showcases the best theatre in London, then we may perhaps settle on the conclusion that its support of challenging, innovative, and allusive work is unrivalled. Ross Willis is the latest graduate of its 503Five writing programme, and in Wolfie, has created a maelstrom of dialogue and movement – it’s The Jungle Book for the age of austerity.
Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville are tasked with bringing order to his mazey narrative; they play twins ‘Z’ and ‘A’, who are traced from birth through separation, with the endless possibility of reconciliation providing an unlikely destination. In a script heavy with chopping and flashbacks, their main task is to delineate clearly the host of secondary figures who populate their respective journeys, from inspiring teacher to warm supermarket butcher. Their performances are truly virtuosic; director Lisa Spirling insists upon hyperactivity, but both actors’ ability to convey tenderness in the face of such relentless animation is outstanding. By the end of the piece, their twinhood has been eclipsed by a creative alliance of rare brilliance.
The strength of Willis’ writing stems from his decision to stop short of a totalising animal kingdom allegory. If Disney films are our cultural touchpoint, then Willis borrows their lightness of touch and irresistible mysticism while adding his own social critique, which stems from his own experience of the care system. ‘Rage and magic’ inspire the play, he says; the result is a captivating balance between blood and glitter, expertly handled by all involved. Doherty, fully believing the language of hope, insists that a child’s simple aim is to ‘[find] the people who make you feel like you can push back gravity’. Care and understanding are the ultimate parental virtues.
On a human level, the play is about the parents we lose, and those we find along the way. State education and the benefits system are variously praised and critiqued, but it’s the contrast between the twins’ stories which expose our own societal failings: a nurtured child is never far away from one neglected. Wolfie is busy, with certain set pieces dragging slightly, but perhaps that is the price of representing everything: we need the middle ground to appreciate the violence of extremity. Willis lays his story out raw in front of us; two formidable performances make it utterly watchable.