Wolfie review – Sisters Grimm weave a fairytale with a social conscience

Theatre 503, London
Ross Willis’s surreal debut is driven by a concern for vulnerable children, but will be remembered for its two remarkable actors

Ross Willis’s debut play is subtitled “some sort of fairytale”. Playful, anarchic and overwritten, it owes a debt to the Brothers Grimm, Angela Carter and rap and is clearly driven by a concern for vulnerable children. I shall remember it, however, less for what it has to say than for the virtuosic performances of its two young actors, Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville.

They play twins who we first see kicking around in the womb. Wrenched from their natural mother, they are farmed out to foster parents and soon separated. One of them, identified as Z, is left in the care of a chemically unbalanced character called Soggy Woman and turns into a clever, deprived child whose whole life is a quest for maternal love. The other twin, known as A, is taken to the woods to be killed by her foster dad, Bony Man, but is rescued by a female wolf and reared as a feral child. We follow the twins’ progress, at the ages of 13 and 26, and the transformations they undergo.

Willis has a gift for surreal dialogue – a hospital sonographer at one point announces: “I’d like to have been a Meat Loaf impersonator.” But, although it is possible to use fairytales as a form of social criticism, Willis’s anger at a world of food banks, faceless bureaucracy and child neglect fits oddly with his madcap imagination. You feel his real interest lies in pushing the boundaries of what theatre can do.

He is, however, well served by his director, Lisa Spirling, who turns the space into an inclusive playground and by his two remarkable actors. Doherty, who held together Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide, suggests the emotional solitude of the desperate Z while transmogrifying into non-human figures: donning a scarlet crest, she turns into a woodpecker and at one point becomes a host of talking trees. Melville, who won laurels for Iphigenia In Splott, is an equally astonishing, rubber-limbed shapeshifter who can turn in a trice from a wolf-child to a posh mum (“My breast milk tastes like champagne”) and a sympathetic teacher.

Even if Willis’s inventiveness runs away with him, his two actors keep him mesmerisingly on track.

• At Theatre 503 ,London, until 13 April.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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