Are some people born good and some people born evil?
Does the way we treat other people ultimately shape their actions?
Do children understand the implications of their games, and should they be held accountable for them?
They’re the chilling questions at the core of Wolf Lullaby, the latest offering from Townsville Little Theatre, which opened last night. The story centres on the Gael family – Angela and Warren, who are separated but remain close friends, and their nine-year-old daughter Lizzie, who we soon learn has a morbid fascination with the fragility of life.
When two-year-old Toby Chester is found dead in “the weeds”, a vacant lot where Lizzie and her friends play, suspicion soon falls on Lizzie and Angela is torn between protecting her daughter or turning her in. The tension mounts as we learn just how devious Lizzie can be, that Lizzie is haunted by a terrifying pack of wolves (symbolic of the darkness in all of us), that Angela and Warren may still be coming to grips with their own dark pasts, and that the recount of events surrounding Toby’s murder may not be entirely reliable.
Lucy Gounaris takes her first lead role as Lizzie in this production and shines. It’s easy to believe that this young adult is in fact a nine-year-old girl. Lucy plays Lizzie with an erraticism fitting of a child burdened by a terrible secret, grappling with guilt, and not fully comprehending the enormity of the situation she is in. It would have been an easy choice to play Lizzie as ‘creepy’ from start to finish, but I’m pleased that Lucy and Director Shelley Keehn, chose to balance her nature with moments of lightness and innocence. Lucy was fully committed to bringing this role to life and I enjoyed ‘checking’ on her at various points when Lizzie was a passive player in the scene – colouring on the floor while the adults talked, for instance. Every single time, I was rewarded with Lizzie being completely lost in her activity, just as a child would be.
It’s great to see a strong female character (with some small gripes, I’d love to take up with the playwright) in Angela, and Zia Macey does her absolute justice. Throughout the play Zia gave us a busy – and arguably negligent – single mother doing the best she can to keep a roof over the head of her precocious daughter; a fiercely protective mumma bear who’s unafraid to challenge authority; a woman torn between justice and loyalty; and, finally, a tired soul beaten by an insurmountable situation. The story is as much Angela’s as it is Lizzie’s and I would have loved to have seen the staging of scenes reflect further, as it would have highlighted Angela’s plight and made her final revelation all the more chilling. Nevertheless, Zia’s presence was commanding, and her performance packed some powerful moments.
Part-comic relief, part-sounding board and part-pressure gauge; Dylan Megaw makes the role of Warren Gael highly enjoyable. Dylan and Zia shared a terrific chemistry as the former lovers and firm(ish) friends who’ve found themselves in a living nightmare. I’d initially worried that Dylan would be too young to convincingly play this role, but he was fabulous as the fair-weather father, reluctantly dragged into drama and clearly spooked by some repressed memory it stirs in him. One of Dylan’s greatest assets as a performer is his expressive tone and he uses this to great effect in this show.
Rounding out the lead cast is Colin Livesey as antagonist Sergeant Ray Armstrong. Armstrong is a toe-the-line-at-any-cost kinda guy, who is instantly detestable when we meet him in scene two, dragging Lizzie into police lock-up for shoplifting a pack of textas. Colin has brought a strong sense of self-assuredness and righteousness to this character that makes him a believable, flawed human even in some hard-to-believe-it-would-actually-happen circumstances. He’s also added some interesting quirks – like counting the textas when he lends the very same pack to Lizzie later on – that manage to redeem him somewhat. Armstrong makes in interesting about face in the final scenes of this show, which are really explained, although we can imagine that he may be beginning to doubt his own accusations, or be softening to the fact that Lizzie is just a child after having spent extended time with her.
Together, the four leads bring to life a band of authentically-flawed characters that effectively muddy the audience’s moral compass.
Embellishing the Gothic nature of this play is a pack of wolves, whose presence overshadows the entire show – even when they’re not in play. For most of their appearances, they stalk through the auditorium preying on audience members and eliciting more than a few gasps and shrieks. They most certainly served their role of injecting dread and tension into the room. However, I fear they were overused, pulling a lot of focus from the main story and watering down the chilling true-crime element of this play. Many audience members (myself most certainly included) spent much of the play looking over their shoulders and clocking the wolves’ whereabouts, rather than listening to pivotal scenes happening on stage. On several occasions, the wolves were interacting with audience members during crucial dialogue, which visibly threw the other actors and left the audience missing vital information including a detailed description of the murder wounds, which would have helped people to better piece together their own opinion of what happened to Toby Chester. The wolves themselves were sensational. The masks and make-up were terrifying and the physical and vocal performances of all seven ensemble members were truly impressive. I was legitimately concerned that my flight-or-fight response would cause me to punch one of them in the snout and I checked the backseat of my car four times before leaving the carpark. However, I think the indulgent desire to scare people with the supernatural meant some of the story structure was lost, and pacing was considerably slowed.
Director Shelley Keehn and her creative team have done a brilliant job creating a theatrical experience that truly engulfs the audience. Beyond the wolves sending shivers up everybody’s spines, the lighting and soundscape were phenomenal. I would go as far as to say that I’ve never seen a show in PIMPAC where these two elements were so well-polished and they most definitely contributed to amping up the fear-factor. The contrast between startling washes of red light during supernatural scenes and the blinding white while Lizzie was being interrogated really got my inner-theatre nerd excited! Unfortunately, there was a significant amount of action staged on stairs and the auditorium floor, which was lost to poor sight lines. With ‘the weeds’ set on the lower levels, the back half of the audience lost some important scenes including Lizzie’s recount of the events, a heated argument between Angela and Warren, and a large monologue of Lizzie’s, which I unfortunately didn’t catch much of at all (a combination of not being able to see Lizzie and being extremely distracted by roaming wolves).
All up, this is a hugely entertaining, high-sensory piece of theatre with great Directorial vision and a talented cast. If the wolves can be tamed just a little, it will help balance the scales between scary and sinister, to let a solid story and impossible moral quandry shine through.
Townsville Little Theatre will present Wolf Lullaby daily until 7 September 2019. For show times and tickets, click here.