Child’s Play: Review of New Theatre’s Wolf Lullaby
Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby (1996) is a frightfully dark play, and on the New Theatre stage, it loses none of its sinister tone.
Lizzie Gael is a nine year old girl. She comes from a divorced family, but her parents Warren and Angela seem to maintain an amicable relationship. From the outset, we see that Lizzie is starved for attention. We watch as she desperately tries to engage with her parents only to be ignored, or told to keep quiet. Unsurprisingly she starts to act out, starting small by skipping school and committing minor thefts; but when a toddler is found dead by the railway tracks it doesn’t take long for her to become the primary suspect.
At the heart of this play Bell is ruminating on what causes a young child to do something that we would consider ‘evil’. Is it Nature or is Nurture? Are some people just born bad or do they become bad? Bell doesn’t offer easy answers, as both elements get a fair showing. Lizzie, talks about ‘the wolf’ a dark entity that consumes her and makes her act out. The wolf, as a symbol, has a long association with the bestial nature that lurks within us. But it’s difficult to watch this play and believe that Lizzie is an evil child. At numerous times she feels intense guilt for the numerous wrongs she has done, most tellingly when she eats her father’s Christmas present (chocolates). At heart she seems to be crying out for the attention and love of her parents, which is the real tragedy of the piece. Although both her mother and father are portrayed as good people, albeit selfish (especially Warren), they are oblivious to the fact that they are neglecting their child. Maybe Bell’s message is that alone neither Nature nor Nurture produces a monster, it’s only when both forces are combined when things start to go wrong.
Lizzie Gael is a troubled child. The daughter of a broken household, Lizzie finds it difficult to sleep most nights and has a dark imagination. Her only real companion is the fantastical wolf that haunts her around every corner. Maryellen George is an adult but she manages to occupy the skin of this tortured little girl. George never falls into the trap of characterising Lizzie as the ‘demon child’, instead, she nuances the performance with curiosity, terror and pent up anger that parental neglect might cause. George also impressively observed the sporadic tendencies of a bored tot – a wonderfully executed performance overall.
Equally affecting was Lucy Miller as Lizzie’s mother, Angela. One cannot imagine the starting point for an actor portraying a mother with a child such as Lizzie. Yet Miller lays everything on the table, raw and true. Her pain is real and she becomes a shell before the audience’s eyes; numb from the emotion and empty from the agony. She connects effortlessly with her fellow cast and should be commended for such a beautiful portrayal.
Peter McAllum makes for a strong presence as Sergeant Ray Armstrong. He is steady and comforting as an officer of the law, whilst allowing Ray, the scared parent, to shine through the cracks. David Woodland completes the picture as Warren, Lizzie’s somewhat absent father. Woodland is suitably baffled and confused by the events that unfold, though he had his work cut out for him with such a strong surrounding cast. Woodland connects particularly well with Lucy Miller and contrasts nicely with McAllum as respective father figures.
Director Emma Louise, with set designer Allan Walpole, has created a chilling space on the New Theatre stage. There are 17 scenes in this short piece, but the transitions are seamless, and what is usually a very minimalist piece has been dressed up with a sleek design and creative use of the space. Not one piece of the stage is wasted; and the atmosphere is haunting from start to finish. There is just something inherently disturbing when a child with all the outward appearances of innocence is depicted as capable of something so unthinkable. Set your spine to tingle.
Wolf Lullaby is playing at the New Theatre until the 13th of September. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/