Described by Willis as “some sort of fairytale,” Wolfie tells the story of “da Sharky twins.” Starting in the womb, these inseparable sisters find themselves separated shortly after birth. While A (Leah Byrne) stays with their depressed mother, Z (Anna Russell-Martin) is left for dead in the woods by their father. There, she is lovingly raised by wolves – that is, until the trees deem she is ready for the “Hoo-man” world. Meanwhile, the neglected A finds solace in her science teacher, Strontium, who helps her out of a series of sticky situations. Act II follows the twins into adulthood, where they both struggle to navigate their surroundings, each hoping to find the love and acceptance they were deprived of during their childhood.
This is a production bursting with colour, music, and humour – even in its darkest and more desperate moments. The sporadic infusion of poetic verse and repetition plays into the play’s quirky conceit, along with the childlike innocence of the protagonists. Some of the smaller details, such as the “sparkle” confetti that represents love and hope for the girls, grounds the emotional core of the play and successfully tugs at your heartstrings. It effectively counterbalances the hardships the two girls face as they run parallel to one another. The abrupt shifting between the two narratives, as well as the occasional reluctance to continue with the story, plays into the twins’ struggle in facing the harsh reality they are living.
Bringing this production together is the formidable pairing of Byrne and Russell-Martin. The love their characters share for one another is palpable, their joy and cheekiness infectious. Together, they bring Willis’ dark and whimsical world to life, populating it with a myriad of eccentric characters – from the talking trees portrayed by Byrne, to Russell-Martin’s deranged mum-of-four, snorting her child’s baby teeth while sitting in a waiting room. From start to finish, the actors captivate their audience with their commitment to the story – going to great lengths to make even the more farcical elements feel real.
Despite their monumental efforts, though, Wolfie struggles under the weight of its subject matter. It finely treads the line between reality and fantasy, often descending into absurdist (and disturbing) realms that are, at times, unsettling to watch. Furthermore, the metaphor at the centre of the play is too jarring to overlook. The implication that the woods/care system leaves Z feral and incapable of integrating within society feels excessive. That is not to say that its criticism of the care system is misplaced; the unsympathetic woodpecker who checks in on Z – ignoring her obvious struggles – certainly rings true. However, the farcical elements of the play often take away from the real, pertinent issues explored by Willis and making it a draining experience.
Visceral in both its imagery and delivery, Wolfie is sure to leave a lasting impression on audiences. While the way Willis broaches the issue of social care in the UK may divide viewers, what is undisputable is the incredible talent of Byrne and Russell-Martin.