Wolves in the Walls (Theater) – Reviews

From the 23rd April Sunday Times:

The Wolves in the Walls. Lyric Hammersmith ****

As well as being an entertaining piece of new theatre, this adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s children’s story is an exciting new departure for British theatre.

This is the first show from the National Theatre of Scotland, a “virtual” theatre in that it has no building of its own, and exists only through the work it makes. Here, its artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, has teamed up with Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre to produce an enchanting “musical pandemonium” that is a delight to the eye as well as the ear, and touches the heart. Told in an exotic cartoon form, the story is simple enough. This is a happy family, but father is so busy playing the tuba, mother making jam and elder brother with his PlayStation that they are oblivious to Lucy’s night fears. Seeking attention, she says that there are wolves in the walls, and in a magical transformation, these creatures, cuddly and menacing by turn, are realised before our eyes.

It is a short show, suitable for seven years upwards, full of promise for the future.
–Robert Hewison


From the 18th April Telegraph:

Here’s a real cracker of a family show, and one that is likely to delight parents even as it deliciously scares their offspring. It’s full of ingenious theatrical magic, sudden shocks, great jokes and highly hummable songs, with a faintly trippy atmosphere that will particularly appeal to retired hippies.

The Wolves in the Walls is a co-production between the infant National Theatre of Scotland, whose first stage show this is (the company began operations with a series of site-specific pieces) and Improbable, those imaginative pioneers of theatre without frontiers.

It’s in the same tradition as Shockheaded Peter, though not quite as terrifying as that nightmarish parade of gory deaths, and is recommended to anyone over seven who’s not easily scared.

The Wolves in the Walls began life as an outstanding graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, with witty, disconcerting illustrations by Dave McKean. Directors Vicky Featherstone and Julian Crouch (the latter is also responsible for the splendid not-quite-real designs) remain admirably faithful to the original.

The action is set in a detached house that at first glance couldn’t be more ordinary, the home of Dad, a tuba player, Mum, who makes loads of jam, our heroine Lucy and her brother who is addicted to computer games.

Everyone is so busy with their particular obsessions that Lucy seems unhappily neglected – even when she leaps into her father’s lap, he keeps playing the tuba – and we wonder if the wolves might just be the product of an over-active imagination and a bid for attention.

But there are strange crackling, crunching noises coming from the walls, and though the rest of the family pooh-poohs Lucy’s fears, one night all hell breaks loose, as the wolves take over the house and the family has to seek refuge in the garden.

The wolves themselves have been brilliantly designed by Crouch, horrible matted, mangy things with huge mouths with sharp teeth and horrid dangly limbs. They are puppets but you can’t always tell where the puppet ends and the operator begins.

Yet, though everyone says “it’s all over if the wolves come out of the walls”, they aren’t quite as ferocious as they seem, turning out to be naughty rather than downright nasty, though they make a terrific mess of the house as they play video games, take the microwave for a walk on a lead and learn the art of scratch DJ-ing.

But then the family turns the tables, taking up residence in the walls themselves before a climactic battle-royal at the end, deliriously choreographed by Featherstone in a manner reminiscent of a great, silent film comedy.

There are some terrific songs and incidental music by Nick Powell, ranging from folksy stuff for Mum (Cora Bissett), classical motifs for Dad (the actor Iain Johnstone appears to be playing a euphonium rather than a tuba, but he plays it pretty well), and a hilarious air-guitar rock sequence for the brother (Ryan Fletcher).

As Lucy, Frances Thorburn gives a lovely performance of solemn concern and resourceful pluck – she actually returns to the wolf-infested house to rescue her toy pig – capturing all the anxiety and loneliness that can blight childhood. And in the final moments she springs a delightful surprise that it would be an absolute sin to reveal. Great stuff.

Until Apr 29 (tickets 0870 050 0511); then touring Scotland.
–Charles Spencer


From the 18th April Evening Standard:

It has to be a worry when a piece of theatre with a 75-minute running time starts to drag. For although there is much to admire in this “musical pandemonium” co-created by the fledgling National Theatre of Scotland and Improbable, the team behind Shockheaded Peter, there is a limit as to how long style can hold out over substance.

There is an inescapable sense of the source material – the graphic children’s book of the same name by the cult writer/illustrator team of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean – being stretched to breaking point, and then being given an extra tweak. The book’s premise is startlingly simple: young Lucy, who lives in domestic harmony with Mum, Dad, older brother and beloved stuffed toy pig, believes that there are wolves in the walls of their house.

Nonsense, say the others.

But since when have adults ever known anything?

Co-directors Vicky Featherstone and Julian Crouch oversee a largely sung production that works best when it gently and sweetly extols the virtues of family and domesticity. Yet there is also awkwardness, not least in the fact that, until the suitably scruffy, scraggy, shaggy wolf puppets make an appearance, the job of four of the eight cast members seems to be that of lugging bits of the set about.

The tremendously youthful looking Frances Thorburn, with her bright, sharp stare and clear singing voice, makes Lucy an engaging central focus and the voice of reason when Mum (Cora Bissett) and Dad (Iain Johnstone) are distracted by their jam-making and tuba-playing. Yet the wol ves of tricksiness have indubitably managed to slip into the supporting walls of this piece, meaning that one firm push would see the whole atmospheric creation collapse into rubble.
–Fiona Mountford


From the 17th April Times:

Lyric, Hammersmith. ***

If you thought the new National Theatre of Scotland would come into being with an adaptation of Ivanhoe launched with a blast of bagpipes in some tartan-carpeted building in Edinburgh, you thought diametrically wrong. It’s not a building at all, but a peripatetic company or set of companies that was launched in March with ten site-specific shows in towns from Lerwick to Dundee and has followed them with this surreal adaptation of a children’s book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: a “musical pandemonium” for six-pluses that’s now on a visit from Glasgow to West London.

“The house where I live is just like any other house,” sings Frances Thorburn’s sweet little Lucy, but does exaggerate just a bit. Even in Scotland there can be few dads who, like hers, spends his days playing the tuba and imagining himself a maestro, and not so many mums who, again like Lucy’s, do nothing but stir jam and
make m
usic by biffing dangling jampots. But they’re conventional enough to disbelieve the girl when she declares that the rumbling noise coming from the walls is made by wolves, not mice or rats or bats, as her family thinks.

Already the production -by the NTS’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, in collaboration with the well-named Improbable Theatre -is scoring pretty high for inventiveness. Here’s a cute little house in which chairs disappear through the ceiling, bits of landing and corridor walk about, and cartoons are projected on the self-same walls from which, eventually, some splendid wolf-puppets do emerge: raggety, grinning, gaping creatures who proceed to chase out the family, eat its CDs and play silly games, like dressing up as Red Riding Hood and whizzing about on scooters.

You could, I suppose, say that these lupine goofballs are Freudian versions of the weasels who commandeer Toad Hall. Some of us have reptiles or killer-spiders lurking behind the wallpaper that separates the conscious from the subconscious, and some, like prepubescent Lucy, have big, hairy, leering wolves. A pity, though, that they aren’t scarier. In a Q and A section in the programme the reply to “Do wolves make good pets?” is an incontrovertible “No, wolves make very poor pets for the average person.” Well, your average Smith, Jones or McTavish would find these particular wolves no more menacing or messy than your average labrador.

I thought the story got a little becalmed at times, but there’s no doubting the imaginative quirkiness on offer. If ever the National Theatre of Scotland does get round to Ivanhoe, expect trombones, shadow-puppets, strobe lighting and actors on stilts.

Box office: 0870 0500511
–Benedict Nightingale


From the 9th April Daily Telegraph:

Lucy is a little girl who hears scary noises about the house. Her jam-making Mum, tuba-playing Dad and electronic-game-playing big brother are too busy to pay attention to her. Until, that is, a pack of slobbering, big-toothed, wide-jawed, lantern-eyed wolves erupts into the family home and chases them all into the garden.

The Wolves in the Walls is a very scary children’s book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. But the National Theatre of Scotland’s musical adaptation (co-produced with Improbable, the company behind the cult hit Shockheaded Peter) has, although it follows the plot, tamed the terrors. Perhaps this was a wise decision in a show intended for children from the age of seven – after all, there’s a fine line between thrilling your audience and scaring it to tears.

The first part of the show is short on suspense but strong on stunning stage effects. Co-directors Julian Crouch and Vicky Featherstone have co-opted the set into the choreography of the action – walls waltz across the stage and a chair dances to the tune of the tuba. It’s all very impressive, but emotionally flat. It’s not until the wolves finally come out of the walls that the show really takes off. Nick Powell’s score lifts it out of blandness, the puppet wolves are frightening and funny, chases are satisfyingly cartoonish, and the ending is a happy one: the wolves are ousted and the family returns to normality. Boring, normality, but then Lucy hears noises in the walls: they sound like elephants …

‘The Wolves in the Walls’ tours to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, April 12-29; Perth Theatre, May 3-8; Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, May 12, 13; Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, May 18-20
–Clare Brennan


From the 5th April Indpendent:

The essence of Neil Gaiman’s cult picture book The Wolves in the Walls is that like monsters under the bed, forgotten childhood terrors are only a darkened room away. What works on the heavily illustrated page, however, is not so easy to transfer to the stage, but this, it seems, is just the kind of high-risk venture which the new National Theatre for Scotland is looking for. Their “Musical Pandemonium”, co-produced with the ever-inventive Improbable Theatre, has all the hallmarks of a bold statement of intent that strikes just the right note between edginess and populism.

Co-directors Vicky Featherstone and Julian Crouch tap into the surreal waking dream of Gaiman’s novel, building it into a nightmare of terrifying, irrational proportions.

Lucy – an excellent Frances Thorburn – is bored. With a tuba-playing dad, a Martha Stewart of a mum, and a video-game-obsessed teenage brother, her only companions are favourite toy Pig Puppet and the four walls. But all games stop when she hears wolves thronging behind the wallpaper.

As Lucy draws on the walls, video projections trace out her scary imaginings in metre-high scribbles of steely-toothed wolves. Dad says it’s mice’ Mum says it’s rats. Only little girls hear wolves. But as everyone ominously says, “When the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.”

Gaiman’s picture book has been deftly re-imagined on an ever-changing set inspired by book illustration and animation. The first 20 minutes are perhaps a little stilted, but as soon as the hessian puppet wolves emerge snarling and howling from their wallpapered confinement, the dream-scape suddenly becomes utterly convincing.

The lupine comedy, brilliantly realised by skilful puppeteers, heightens as the rampant wild wolves of the walls become domesticated, from middle-class lair-makers to break dancing teen wolves. And beneath it all is a dark undertow of family dislocation, fear of the unknown and protection of one’s own. As the wolves cower back into the walls, there is an uncomfortable suggestion that we, like Lucy, will always be able to conjure up new “threats”. What’s the time, Mr Wolf? It’s always dinner time.–Sarah Jones


From the 5th April Financial Times:

The best aspect of this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Improbable is that it creates an air of convincing wonderment and menace. Such perfect pitching alone marks the play as a winner. Younger theatregoers gasp at the macabre frights and slapstick humour, while grown-ups can enjoy a convergence of fine performances, the subtle ingenuity of the set design and a lightheartedly evocative live musical score.

Adapted from the picture book by the author Neil Gaiman (who added lyrics for the songs) and the illustrator Dave McKean, The Wolves in the Walls has a simple fairytale plot. Young Lucy can hear wolves lurking in the walls of her home, to the ignorance of her parents and air-guitar-playing older brother. They speculate the noises might be mice or bats, adding fearfully that if there are wolves in the walls, and they do come out, “it’s all over”. Of course the wolves do come out and the family must flee, but the show is not as ominous as this suggests. There are tensely thrilling moments – as when Lucy returns to retrieve her toy from the jaws of a sleeping wolf – but also passages of pleasing physical humour, when the oafish wolves try to get to grips with modern appliances.

The wolves themselves are expertly brought to life by three puppeteers, who threaten to steal the show. Yet Cora Bissett is magnetic as the jolly Mum, moving between speech and song as she prepares her jam, while Ryan Fletcher gives a grandstanding turn as Lucy’s show-off Brother. Iain Johnstone’s tuba- playing Dad and Frances Thorburn’s measured Lucy add quality to the show.

This flagship first full production of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone co-directs) is a rich piece of storytelling for all ages.
–David Pollock


From the 2nd April Observer:

“If the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.”

Not in Glasgow. When the wolves hit the stage at the Tramway, a good show becomes its glorious best. The National Theatre of Scotland and Improbable have collaborated in this adaptation of the scary children’s book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. The Wolves in the Walls is ingeniously billed as ‘a musical pandemonium’ – a description that carefully avoids the cultural weight of ‘opera’ and takes the mumsy merriment out of ‘musical’ – suitable for all those ‘over seven who aren’t easily scared’.

It’s the first time Gaiman’s work has been seen in the theatre, though he’s written screenplays (Beowulf is being filmed by Robert Zemeckis, Mirrormask was directed by McKean) as well as adult fantasy novels and the Sandman comic-book series. It’s unlikely to be the last: this mixture of the unsettling and the shrewd makes CS Lewis look like Davina McCall: it can only be months before someone stages the amazing Coraline, in which a little girl (most of Gaiman’s heroes are heroines – yeah!) discovers an alternative life in which she has an ‘other mother’, with buttons for eyes, and a house that becomes a photograph of itself. It’s a brilliant nightmare, because so much of it is nearly normal.

The Wolves in the Walls – simply written and thoroughly creepy – is fired by Gaiman’s obsession with parents who get sealed off from their children, and his fascination with secret lives. A small girl hears gnawings inside her house, and knows that wolves are in the walls. Her family don’t believe her, until the lupine invaders take over: the humans scarper, but our heroine ingeniously suggests that they could live in the interstices of their own home – until they, too, are ready to come out of the walls. You could find here a story about the free-wheeling life of the unconscious, parental obtuseness, child bravery, panic about immigration. The only certain thing is that the story is always shifting: there’s no dead space; those walls are heaving.

Julian Crouch, one of the designer-directors of Improbable, is the man

to animate those shifts. He’s had a hand in the most imaginative theatre of the last decade: the grisly, gaudy toy-theatre of Shockheaded Peter and Sticky’s 100-foot-high sellotape monster; he raised hell when he designed Jerry Springer – the Opera. He can tweak a creature from a crumpled newspaper and turn a jumble of tape into a giant spider. He doesn’t make settings for dramas: his shape-changing designs are part of the action.

For The Wolves in the Walls, Crouch echoes McKean’s disturbing tangle of line-drawings, sculptural paintings and photographs but also makes something entirely his own. The wolves appear first as scratchy drawings on the curtain, then torch-light eyes glow like port-holes through the fabric. You glimpse them as spiky shadow puppets, and in full-blown burlap glory as enormous, part-human, part-puppet creatures. Sometimes an actor wears a sacking beast draped like a stole: its ping-pong-ball eyes glare above swivelling jaws, while long limbs dangle to the ground like strings of sausages. Sometimes a wolf-head perches on a fully human body: one wolf-dude saunters around in jeans, hand on hip as he hoovers to the sound of jazz. A wolf-fest rampage – one on a scooter dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, another savaging a standard lamp, a third swallowed up by a tuba – and one tugging a fluffy pet on wheels, which gets mangled and spat out by the fangs of his mates – is alone worth the price of a ticket.

There are plenty of other visual treats: a house is scribbled on the curtain with a beam of light; a father’s dream of tuba-playing glory is greeted by ghostly clapping hands; a boy’s video game floods the stage with castles and crags. And an extraordinarily beguiling pig puppet floats like a podgy pink cherub above the wolves’ snapping jaws.

Crouch’s co-director is Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, who has pinpoint precision and an unusual panoramic focus. That shows, though some of the considerable talents she’s brought in aren’t yet at full strength. Steve Hoggett provides choreography that makes the action dance – everyone leaps, glides, sashays or elevates – but it sometimes looks too energetically arty. Nick Powell’s songs – for which Gaiman has supplied some new words – are too bland: where’s the really frightening number? The opening scenes of the show are goody-goody: mum dances around while making jam (waving spoons and beaming) as if in a Fifties’ children’s telly show.

But it will grow. Powell’s composition is not just songs: it’s a soundscape – with lusty riffs for Iain Johnstone’s impressive tuba-playing father and a compelling steely guitar tune for the computer-game-playing son (Ryan Fletcher gives an electric performance as he skids around the stage propelled by the stuff coming out of his earphones) – of bleeps and pings and electronic buzzings. He’s composed a silvery sequence for the preserve-making mother which she tinkles out on the jars she is filling: jamelan.

The show now goes on tour, to London and through Scotland. It will end up at the Ayr Gaiety, the theatre Crouch says inspired him as a young boy. Let’s hope some young Crouches are in the audience: they could be carving out the theatre of the next 20 years.
–Susannah Clapp


From the 2nd April Independent on Sunday

Julian Crouch has been biding his time. True, this fantastic stage designer hasn’t been lying entirely doggo since Shockheaded Peter, the crankily macabre West End hit for which he shockingly didn’t win an Olivier Award. He has been abroad and conjured up a hallucinatory hell for Jerry Springer: The Opera. But now, with Wolves in the Walls, he has thrillingly returned to dark children’s literature, translating it into fabulous looking, scary and funny theatre with co-director Vicky Featherstone. This is also an exhilarating premiere for Featherstone’s new National Theatre of Scotland, co-producing with Crouch’s company Improbable. Recommended for everyone brave and over seven, it’s adapted from the children’s book by Neil Gaiman about a girl called Lucy whose family flee (at least initially) from their home when nightmarish wolves leap out of the walls.

Crouch essentially captures the shadowy yet also magically glowing style of David McKean’s original illustrations. At the same time, he and Featherstone play inventive theatrical games. Frances Thorburn’s lonely but sturdy Lucy tucks up with her toy pig in a surreally vertical bed, at once entertaining and unsettling. During the day, when she’s wandering around the house, a pack of stagehands in oddly wolfish clothes (peaked caps and jodhpurs) sneak around behind her as if it’s Grandmother’s Footsteps, only the building itself seems to move because they’re carrying the scenery – a creepy staircase here, a bleak receding corridor there. Lucy’s home is also seen from the outside, hauntingly lit up against the darkness, with her tubby, nice but self-involved dad (Iain Johnstone) squeezed into one room with his tuba while, in another, her faintly witchy mum (Cora Bissett) obsessively stirs strawberry jam. The wolves proper – when they jump out, wound round the backs of four puppeteers – are ashen and raggedy, like decomposing corpses, with big snappy jaws and long trailing legs. Yet they prove hilarious too, behaving like partying squatters crossed with big babies. One turns into a scratch DJ, using a claw, while another casually trundles through the living-room dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood.

Admittedly, at this early stage in its tour, this show isn’t knocking Shockheaded Peter into a cocked hat. The helter-skelter chases, choreographed by Steven Hoggett (of Fran
ti
c Assembly), need more work and the edgy score (by Nick Powell) occasionally becomes bland.

However, at its best, this is an extraordinary musical-cum-modern opera for kids. Newcomer Ryan Fletcher has a blast as Lucy’s wannabe cool brother, playing thrash rock on his air guitar. And Featherstone intelligently teases out – without spelling out – what the wolves might represent, from fears of death to marauding yobs, from poltergeists to the fantasies of domestically frustrated parents. Worth catching.

The hilarious wolves behave like partying squatters
–Kate Bassett


From the 2nd April Sunday Herald:

Rating: 4 Stars

Children’s theatre was always going to be a challenging area for the new National Theatre of Scotland. Part of the NTS’s burden is that audiences expect its work to be of a higher quality than that produced by other Scottish theatre groups.

With superb children’s companies such as Wee Stories and Catherine Wheels at large, that’s a tall order; to say nothing of the always outstanding Children’s International Theatre Festival staged in Edinburgh annually by Tony Reekie’s Imaginate company.

If The Wolves In The Walls, the NTS’s first stage production (the others having been on ferries, in glass factories and around the Glasgow subway system), is anything to go by, the already bright outlook for children’s theatre in Scotland just got rosier.

Based upon Neil Gaiman’s wonderful and unusual book (which has fabulous illustrations by Dave McKean), it is a brilliant example of how a vibrant, collaborative piece of musical theatre can grow from a well-chosen text.

The book, for those who haven’t already succum-bed to its charms, finds young Lucy much perturbed by the sounds emanating from within the walls of her creaking old house. There are, she concludes, wolves in the walls. Her pig handpuppet agrees.

Problem is, her jam-making mum, tuba-playing father and computer games-addicted brother all insist that the noises are being made by mammals of an altogether smaller size and less threatening reputation.

Perhaps they simply can’t bring themselves to accept the possibility of a wolf infestation because, as everyone knows, “when the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over!”

The rest is children’s literary history; it’s also too good to give away. Let’s just say that when the wolves do emerge, our intrepid heroine, Lucy, is not prepared to accept the proposals of family members that they emigrate to the North Pole or outer space.

Gaiman’s tale is an excellent choice for adaptation to the stage. It has everything children love in live performance: tension, suspense, fear, courage, humour and, in this version, a fart gag.

The beauty of this presentation, a co-production between the NTS and London-based theatre group Improbable (in association with Tramway), is that it brings its own ideas to Gaiman’s text without diminishing the book.

Indeed, Gaiman provided additional lyrics for the songbook, which was collectively conceived by co-directors Vicky Featherstone (of the NTS) and Julian Crouch (of Improbable) with composer Nick Powell.

There is often something quite garish and trashy about big stage musicals for kids, but this piece is pure class. The cast, from excellent young actress Frances Thorburn (Lucy) to star of stage and screen Cora Bissett (Mum) and Wee Stories co-director Iain Johnstone (Dad), has quality written all over it; even one of the wolves is played by Scottish Critics’ Award winner Cait Davis.

Where other shows go for the “wow!” factor (think flying cars and the sort of pyrotechnics more appropriate for Chinese New Year), Featherstone and Crouch make a pitch for children’s imaginations.

Crouch also designed the sets (which are impressively faithful to McKean’s pictures in the original book), and, with the help of Natasha Chivers’s perfectly attuned lighting, the sense of the wolves preparing their invasion is realised visually with flair. Combined with the premonitory atmosphere generated by the fine live sound and music, the children in the audience are set to explode with anticipation.

If the piece is scary (but not, my own squeamish seven-year-old assures me, too scary), it is just as effective where the book’s humour is concerned.

Most of the story is well-plotted in Gaiman’s text, but it is in staging the wolfish celebrations which follow the expulsion of the humans from their home that this piece really comes into its own. The wolf masks and puppets are quite divine, in a fabulously rough sort of way. When the wolves do get the run of the house, they look like a bunch of drunken louts.

Their shenanigans are simply too hilarious, and too ingenious, to divulge to readers who may see the show as it tours; but if I mention the record player, the vacuum cleaner, Dad’s tuba and the dressing up box, you’ll get the idea.

There is also comedy from an unexpected source. In the book, Lucy’s brother is a rather annoying sibling with little by way of personality. Here, however, young Ryan Fletcher is a revelation, making a blisteringly adolescent tube of himself; singing in a fake American accent, playing air guitar and generally looking like a wannabe accountant.

If the show has a weakness it lies in the sheer number of performative ideas which have been squeezed in; a sign, unquestionably, of the collaborative process by which it was made. However, these various elements are, for the most part, tamed and focused … which is more than can be said of those wolves.
–Mark Brown


From the April 2nd Daily Variety:

The Wolves in the Walls
(Tramway, Glasgow; 600 seats; £9 $16 top)

A National Theater of Scotland presentation with Improbable, in association with Tramway, of a musical in one act based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Conceived by Vicky Featherstone, Julian Crouch and Nick Powell. Directed by Featherstone and Crouch. Musical director, Martin Lowe. Choreography, Steven Hoggett.

Dad – Iain Johnstone
Mum – Cora Bissett
Lucy – Frances Thorburn
Brother – Ryan Fletcher
The Wolves – Cait Davis, Ewan Hunter, Jessica Tomchack, Jason Webb

Musicians: Robert Melling, Ric Chandler, Brian Molley

Sets and costumes, Crouch; lighting, Natasha Chivers; original music, Powell. Opened March 22, 2006. Reviewed March 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

They call it a “musical pandemonium,” which is stretching a point. But if this through-composed adaptation of the children’s picture book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, “The Wolves in the Walls,” doesn’t have quite the anarchic spirit of helmer-designer Julian Crouch’s best-known creation, “Shockheaded Peter,” it does have a fertile energy of its own. As a junior introduction to the dark side of musical theater, it’s a lot of grisly fun and will be welcomed by younger Stateside audiences when it crosses the pond to tour in 2007.
Vicky Featherstone, head of the new National Theater of Scotland, struck on the idea of staging the book while reading it to her eldest son. At only 4, he was captivated by an all-too-believable tale of young Lucy whose protests about the wolves living in the walls of her family’s new house go unheard until the beasts decide to move in. When the tables are turned and the family is forced to live at the bottom of the garden, it falls on Lucy to put matters right.

In the short book’s 50 pages, McKean and Gaiman — whose name is associated with forthcoming movies Beowulf, Coraline, Stardust and Books of Magic — create a creepy, quirky picture that captures something of the anxiety, powerlessness and dark i
magination
of childhood. All odd angles and spooky shadows, it has a haunting quality that belies the simplicity of the story and repays repeated readings.

The production tunes in well to the blend of humor and horror, setting the genial but self-absorbed family figures — Iain Johnstone’s tuba-playing father, Cora Bissett’s jam-making mother and Ryan Fletcher’s game-playing big brother (complete with Space Invaders sweater) — against the scraggy, unkempt wolves, a dangly-limbed pack of sack-cloth puppets, more scary in their lawlessness than their bite. Only the radiant smile of Frances Thorburn’s Lucy reassures us that everything will be all right.

As designer, Crouch picks up on the cut-and-paste style and distinctive color palate of McKean’s artwork, building a number of ingenious variations on the domestic interior in which dimensions and perspectives are routinely out of kilter. When the girl senses the walls closing in on her, they do just that: three cardboard cut-outs creeping up when her back is turned like wayward components in a toy theater.

There’s a lovably homemade quality to all of this (Crouch’s specialty as designer is making entire sets from Scotch tape), but that’s not to underestimate the production’s technical sophistication. Pencil in hand, Thorburn leads us gently into the show by appearing to draw on the lowered curtain in front of her, quickly filling it with huge childish sketches of wolves with the help of some computer wizardry. The arrival of the animals is anticipated by an ominous rumbling that rattles our seats, chilling glimpses of shadow-puppet silhouettes and projections of fearsome lupine eyes.

Nick Powell’s score is influenced by everything from madrigals to electronica, heavy rock, Michael Nyman and George Gershwin. Melodically, though, it’s short on killer tunes and, lyrically, rather too faithful to the book to create memorable, stand-alone songs. In that sense, it’s more operatic in form, prioritizing the telling of the story over show-stopping numbers.

This means there’s less musical flamboyance than in “Shockheaded Peter,” which was driven by the extraordinary talents of the Tiger Lilies and, in a later version, David Thomas of Pere Ubu. But that’s not to diminish the child-friendly qualities of this entertaining show.
–Mark Fisher


From the 31st March Times Online:

Four stars

Well, here it is, the first full mainstage production of Scotland’s new National Theatre, and if one of the company’s missions is to build the audience of the future, then this brisk, vivid and effective 75-minute “musical pandemonium” for children over the age of six seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. Co-produced with London-based Improbable Theatre, the show is based on the award-winning 2003 picture book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, an eccentric and beautifully drawn collage of images and text which tells the story of Lucy, a wise child who just knows that the rustling noises in the walls of her family’s house are caused not by mice but by a marauding company of wolves, and who, alarmingly, is proved right.

This is an unsettling story, in other words, full of echoes of dark 1990s themes of occupation, flight and exile, and the sudden powerlessness of parents in a cruel world. The echo of postmodern warfare is captured by the strange commando gear worn by the four actors who play the wolves, carrying big, awkward wolf-puppets.

The emotional curve of the story is beautifully captured in this joint production by the NTS’s Vicky Featherstone and Improbable’s Julian Crouch, and by the lovely Frances Thorburn as Lucy, Ryan Fletcher as her PlayStation-obsessed brother, and Cora Bissett and Iain Johnstone as her loving but ineffectual parents.

Where the show slightly misses the mark is in the areas where the National Theatre might be expected to excel. The scenic effects range from the excellent and exciting – such as the moving, translucent walls of the house – to the clumsy and the slightly disappointing. And Nick Powell’s lyrical score, although brilliantly sung, propels us deftly through the story without ever becoming memorable. But if the production fails to achieve the world-beating levels of beauty, clarity and technical excellence to which it might have aspired, it’s still a bright, strong, clever and interesting big-scale children’s show built around a family story that attracted delighted roars and chuckles of recognition from the kids in the audience. And it seems more than capable, as it tours on to London, Perth, Stirling and Ayr, not only of representing Scottish theatre elsewhere, but of drawing many thousands of children and their families into the embrace of their new National Theatre company before its first season is out.
–Joyce McMillan


From the 31st March Times Online:

It was cunning, tactically, to open the all-new National Theatre of Scotland in ten places at once last month, diffusing attention but pulling in thousands more people than would ever have seen one big gala in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Sooner or later, though, there was always going to come a moment when all eyes would be on one place, one stage, one big moment.

This production is it.

Anyone expecting some grand classic, however, or even a new play by a Liz Lochhead or a David Greig, still has not grasped how different this national-theatre-without-walls – no permanent company, no permanent home – wants to be.

Who else would have taken a story by Neil Gaiman, the graphic novel supremo, and got him to adapt it, a first in itself? Who else would have chosen a show for a family audience (“anyone from six upwards who’s not a scaredy-cat”, according to the publicity)? Who else would have had it almost entirely sung through to some stylish but dark, original music by Nick Powell?

Well, in the end, as long as it works, who cares? Happily, I can report that, although it takes a while to get going, its action-packed 75 minutes ends in something close to triumph. The story, originally a dream of Gaiman’s four-year-old daughter, is that there are wolves living in the walls of her ordinary house. Lucy, charmingly played and sung by Frances Thorburn, is more like 10 or 11 here, though naturalistic details do not count for much in this fantastical world where Mum makes jam and Dad plays the tuba. Naturally, Lucy turns out to be right. But when they finally appear, everything does not come to a stop, as the adults predict. The wolves turn out to be scaredy-cats themselves, just a bit raucous and badly behaved.

You could find any number of subtexts -about vanquishing fears, embracing strangers, living cheek by jowl -if you wanted to. But the real pleasure here is the sheer theatrical fun of it, the moveable, transparent walls of the house, the crazy projections and perspectives and, above all, the wolves themselves. Grey, mangy tatterdemalions they may be, giant puppets brilliantly manipulated by onstage puppeteers, yet somehow there remains something inescapably lupine about them.

Julian Crouch co-directs alongside Vicky Featherstone, the theatre’s artistic director, and you can see the hallmarks of Crouch’s own Improbable company, with which this is co-produced, all over it. But then Crouch grew up in Ayr, so already the NTS is bringing its talent home. My eight-year-old assistant reviewer was enraptured.
–Robert Dawson Scott


From the 31st March Scotsman:

Well, here it is, the first full mainstage production of Scotland’s new National Theatre, and if one of the company’s missions is to build the audience of the future, then this brisk, vivid and effec
tive
75-minute “musical pandemonium” for children over the age of six seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. Co-produced with London-based Improbable Theatre, the show is based on the award-winning 2003 picture book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, an eccentric and beautifully drawn collage of images and text which tells the story of Lucy, a wise child who just knows that the rustling noises in the walls of her family’s house are caused not by mice but by a marauding company of wolves, and who, alarmingly, is proved right.

This is an unsettling story, in other words, full of echoes of dark 1990s themes of occupation, flight and exile, and the sudden powerlessness of parents in a cruel world. The echo of postmodern warfare is captured by the strange commando gear worn by the four actors who play the wolves, carrying big, awkward wolf-puppets.

The emotional curve of the story is beautifully captured in this joint production by the NTS’s Vicky Featherstone and Improbable’s Julian Crouch, and by the lovely Frances Thorburn as Lucy, Ryan Fletcher as her PlayStation-obsessed brother, and Cora Bissett and Iain Johnstone as her loving but ineffectual parents.

Where the show slightly misses the mark is in the areas where the National Theatre might be expected to excel. The scenic effects range from the excellent and exciting – such as the moving, translucent walls of the house – to the clumsy and the slightly disappointing. And Nick Powell’s lyrical score, although brilliantly sung, propels us deftly through the story without ever becoming memorable. But if the production fails to achieve the world-beating levels of beauty, clarity and technical excellence to which it might have aspired, it’s still a bright, strong, clever and interesting big-scale children’s show built around a family story that attracted delighted roars and chuckles of recognition from the kids in the audience. And it seems more than capable, as it tours on to London, Perth, Stirling and Ayr, not only of representing Scottish theatre elsewhere, but of drawing many thousands of children and their families into the embrace of their new National Theatre company before its first season is out.
–Joyce McMillan


From the 31st March Guardian:

Lucy’s house looks like an ordinary house. But Lucy knows that there is something different and strange about it: a feeling that anything could happen. Her busy jam-making mum, tuba-playing dad and big brother are dismissive of her fears, but Lucy is certain there are wolves living in the walls. And the wolves are about to come out. And as everyone knows, when the wolves come out of the wall, it’s all over.

Based on Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s cult picture book, this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Improbable Theatre takes the form of a family opera that is acutely alert to the psychology of the child’s mind. This is no Shockheaded Peter: it is intended for children, but it transports the adult back into the world of childhood, a world full of uncertainty, nameless fears and mystery, a place where bogeymen and monsters lurk under your bed and in your head.

Like the book, the show is very scary and very safe at the same time, and it completely understands the child’s fierce attachment to her home and the intense loneliness of modern family life where families live together and yet are apart doing their own thing. It could do with racking up the tension at the beginning, however. And, melodic though Nick Powell’s score is, it is rather too well-behaved for this pandemonium, with its wonderful raggedy wolves – all long limbs, jaws and twisted smiles, so that they look endearingly terrifying, like Bambi with fangs.

Quintessentially of the book, and yet also much more, this is a delightful, anarchically inventive exploration of the peculiar pleasures of fear, and it both conjures monsters and defeats them. Wolves and humans do a terrific job. I made sure to check under my bed before I turned the light out.
–Lyn Gardner