Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has written in The Uses of Enchantment why traditional fairytales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm are important for child development: the scary things children encounter equip them for dealing with hardships in life.
In Windmill’s Big Bad Wolf, playwright Matthew Whittet has intentionally created a lovable, likeable, misunderstood big bad wolf who, instead of eating rabbits, feeds them breath-mints.
Patrick Graham is Wolfy, a wolf with a pointed hairstyle, small fangs, white shirt, braces and trousers that are too short. Although other characters talk about Wolfy being scary, he never is. Graham is entertaining and comic, and he presents Wolfy as a sad, lonely figure who likes to write poetry and whose only friend is Wolfy Bear.
Emma Hawkins is Heidi Hood, a short-statured girl who loves to win; her gorgeous forest chalet is adorned with medals and trophies. She wants to win a poetry competition, but she lacks talent for the genre. Wolfy, who can compose a ditty or two, is deemed too scary by the local populous to enter such a competition.
Hawkins is animated and energetic, and her personal charisma radiates to the audience; her dance routines are fun and she performs with an innate understanding of her child audience.
Kate Cheel skillfully plays a variety of characters: she narrates, is a TV reporter, is Wolfy’s mother, Wolfmaster, and voices a number of puppets. Her versatility and energy are admirable, but Wolfy’s mother – dressed as a scoutmaster and looking pretty much as nerdy as her son – is never as scary as the script indicates. Perhaps the creative team is seeking to suggest that, although Wolfy talks of his mother as being scary, fear may be only in the eyes of the beholder and people are never really as scary as their publicity.
Windmill’s designs are always impressive and Jonathon Oxlade’s attractive amber forest suits the more intimate Space setting, especially with Chris Petridis’s tasteful lighting and Harry Covill’s soundscapes, which enhance the atmosphere. Oxlade has created a wonderful little house for Heidi Hood, with an upstairs bedroom and a working wolf alarm.
Stephanie Fisher’s puppetry adds to the charm of this production, particularly the talking couch and tall tree, but also a cute rabbit which expresses some fear of the wolf.
Director Rosemary Myers has a talented creative team working around her and Windmill’s creations are excellent. In a world that seems to be promoting fear nightly on our television sets – fear of home invasions, shootings, domestic violence, refugees swamping our shores, war-torn countries and, generally, foreigners with different languages and appearance – I can understand why Windmill would want to take a fresh look at a traditional scary figure and try to show the world from their perspective. It’s an interesting concept and leads to some fun with a non-traditional lead villain.
Everything looks good in this production and everything is done professionally and successfully. However, because the fairytale has been sanitised and has two traditional rivals joining forces and finding the good in each other, the storyline lacks the adrenaline rush we get from a scary story. The winning poetry is not particularly impressive, either. From the first moment we see him, Wolfy is a sweet, nerdy character, as is Heidi Hood, so there is a lack of tension and drama and everything seems cosily resolved in a very unreal way. The TV reporter reports the fear in the community but we never experience it.
Big Bad Wolf is a very enjoyable experience and I can see why some parents avoid reading traditional fairytales to their children – we all want to protect our children and see that no harm comes to them – but there are wolves in our society who are not poetry-loving vegematarians and there are dark forests and the theatre is one place where we can experience them and come home safely.
Big Bad Wolf is at the Space Theatre until July 13.
Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.Donate Here