The Watermill Theatre’s magical setting beside a willow-lined mill race, with ducks on the lawn and a still-turning waterwheel inside, is always a delight to visit.
Its intimate theatre with first floor gallery seating is always packed to the gills – well supported, but often by older theatre-goers. To complement this demographic, the theatre supports a thriving outreach programme, which includes hosting fledgling talent.
The Watermill’s Senior Youth Theatre (11-16 year olds) has been running for 23 years. Participation is un-auditioned - members drawn largely from local schools.
Its exuberant production of Joan Aiken’s classic gothic melodrama The Wolves of Willoughby Chase attracted a younger audience. It was impressive to see how even the smallest children were rapt by the production.
Russ Turney’s stage adaptation incorporated Aiken’s superb descriptive writing to great effect. Director Beth Flintoff skillfully galvanized a large youth cast spreading the narrative lines around to ensure a strong ensemble feel. She made full use of the theatre space itself, including the gangways and gallery to engage the audience in the fast-moving action.
The Dickensian elements of the story: innocence abused, wicked authority figures, harsh landscapes and repeated peril mitigated by kindness, love, loyalty and courage delivered a gripping tale. Toots Butcher’s evocative set and Pete Maxey’s lighting transported us from frozen forests to urban squalor. All the while, the wolves howled, overlaying Josh Robinson’s suspenseful music.
It was not just in the isolated environs of magnificent Willoughby Chase that danger lurked: ravening, wolfish characters whose calculated cruelty exceeded their animal counterparts populated the play.
Ben Stillman gave an assured, stand-out performance as Miss Slighcarp, the scheming governess who seeks to seize Willoughby Chase for herself. Stillman’s rap-inspired firing of the staff was terrific, and as Slighcarp became bolder, helping herself to dresses belonging to the absent mother of the child she had been entrusted to care for, Stillman’s confidence grew.
Resilient heroine Bonnie Green (Robyn Luke) was suitable fiery, while Sylvia, her cousin in abandonment (Maia Brown), was loyal and increasingly bold. Their resourceful goose-dealing, cave-dwelling friend Simon (confident and fluent Rory Robertson-Shaw) and devoted butler James (Joshua Hearn) stood steadfast. Sam Harris’ innate decency as the duped doctor shone out, while all around them the forces of darkness gathered.
Albie Embleton’s rumbustious deceived Sir Willoughby was a force of nature, while his ailing wife (Lauren Manton) was believable as an 1830’s aristocrat’s dutiful and sweet wife.
Special mention must be made of the sheer vitality and energy of Dylan and Louie Morris’ wolves. I wouldn’t like to try and outrun them.