‘Wolfie’ – an allegorical story of a childhood spent in the care system

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Will you stay a while longer?: Kate Lovell is captivated by Ross Willis’ visceral and wild tale of the unloved at Theatre503, London from 20 March – 13 April.

Two young women embracing

Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville in Wolfie. Photograph: Helen Murray.

Wolfie is a play that begins at the very beginning. Upon entering the auditorium, the arresting opening sequence is of two babies floating, somersaulting and wading astronaut-like in a giant womb carved out of the set and backlit. Watching this movement is hypnotic and comforting; like being soothed by the sight of fish swimming in a tank. It looks like a safe and inviting space.

But the sense of cosiness is disrupted as the play hurtles down the birth canal and into the harsh, strip-lit wonder of a dangerous outside world. Willis’ play is a fantastical allegory, following the lives of twins separated at infancy and left to land with a thud into the wilds of the care system.

In spite of the perfectly in synch dance routines from the ‘charming babies’, they cannot sparkle hard enough to persuade their birth mother to keep them. They are likeable from the word go and this makes the rejection within the first five minutes of the show all the more poignant.

The two-hander needs a titanium-strong cast: and by goodness Sophie Melville and Erin Doherty deliver. The women play the Sharky twins, along with dozens of other roles, including an entire forest of talking trees, in the story of the wacky, heart-wrenching rollercoaster of their so-called childhoods. It is a play that lays bare the everlasting consequences of being a looked-after – but not necessarily nurtured – child.

The writing delicately and intelligently explores the ways in which the lack of a parent both robs a person of their childhood whilst simultaneously freezing their development, preventing them from maturing into adults. A haunting refrain of being expected to know how to be an independent human but having never been shown echoes through the play.

There is no doubt that the subject matter is profound – but the show is as hilarious as it is serious. Willis is a wonderful satirist, stretching familiar tropes into amusingly grotesque caricatures. The unbearably glowing fourth-time pregnant mother who is so high on her winning parenting formula that we watch as she hysterically offers one twin a cocaine hit cut with her children’s ground up milk molars. The black-hearted DWP cyphers smilingly wish death upon hapless wannabe claimants damned to sanctions for not knowing why an ugly sea creature is so sad. The humour is wonderfully frenzied.

Willis’ writing is heightened and rich, like a captivating song that summons tears in the high pitches and keeps resurfacing in your mind long after you first hear it. What makes Wolfie so impressive is that its themes are universal. The allegorical study of a childhood spent in the care system is a vital and important story that stands front and centre.

But the play is about love. Our need for it, our unquenchable thirst for it, the visceral desire for love that makes us uniquely human. Only, when we are deprived of this life force from our own day dot, how do we learn to be ‘hooman’ when we have been raised like wolves?

Wolfie is at Theatre503 until 13 April. Please note: Theatre503 is not currently wheelchair accessible.