'The Wolf From the Door' review or 'More peas please!'

The Wolf From the Door, Rory Mullarkey
Royal Court Theatre, 15th September 2014

There’s a bit of Simon Pegg’s British-based horror movies and Eddie Izzard’s whip-smart whimsy to Rory Mullarkey’s Pinter Commission-winning comedy ‘The Wolf From the Door’. There’s a fair bit of nakedness too, a heap of British eccentricity and a host of quirky walk-on-roles. It is a confident and enjoyably surprising piece of theatre – but it’s also a pretty flawed play, which comes up terribly short whenever Mullarkey tries too hard to ‘explain himself.’

As always at the Court – and what a luxury this has come to be – the acting is top notch. Anna Chancellor, who I have never seen on stage before but who I intend to stalk from now on, plays the filthy rich Lady Catherine, a terribly posh British lady who wants to tear up the system, one crisp consonant at a time. Relative newcomer Calvin Demba plays Leo; a tracksuit-wearing twenty something who doesn’t really eat or sleep and just wants Lady Catherine to cup his bum. The two bump into each other at a train station and set about a violent – and violently offbeat – rampage across Middle England, determined to ‘bring down the elite’ and start afresh, with young Leo in charge of the whole damn system.

Chancellor is one of the most watchful actors I’ve seen and it’s a pleasure just to observe her, observing the action on stage. She has a brilliant command of language and pace and varies the rhythm of her speech with such skill. Mullarkey is a very funny writer – this surely is his strength – and Chancellor releases his quips with perfect ease; ‘I’m extremely rich because of old money.’ The play is probably about 10% funnier for Chancellor’s presence.

Demba is a great partner to Chancellor; sullen and just a touch threatening but charming and naive too. But perhaps the most attractive aspect of this show is the wacky walk on roles, played with relish by Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley. As Leo and Catherine motor around middle England and rally the misfits and subdued masses into action, Russell and Quigley play the allies, oddballs and enemies they meet along the way.

Every extra role is written and performed with such verve and commitment. Even as the play loses its shape, these random encounters are brilliantly bonkers and amusing. We meet a couple of open-mouthed workers at Tescos, two jolly war re-enactors at Little Chef, a manically depressed taxi driver (‘It’s the days, isn’t it! Oh the days, the days!’), a gun-wielding choir master and a devoted housekeeper who insists on cooking the Bishop a nine-bird roast on the eve of the end of the world.

It’s quirksville all the way and so fun to watch a writer who is completely original – and a director, in James Macdonald, who is willing and able to accent the eccentricities of this play rather than neatly paper over them. He’s helped by Tom Pye’s strident design – plus the clever use of screens – which lends the whole show a fun and punchy spirit.

Despite a real energy about the show the writing does run out of steam about two thirds in – mainly when the play tries to elevate itself above the class of ‘amusing observational comedy’. As the rants pick up and the ‘serious’ side of this play is forced into the open, it really droops. There just isn’t the specificity or complexity required to turn this piece into a particularly useful satire. Everything is very vague; a few angry speeches about ‘bringing down the system’ does not a pointed political satire make. But there is an exquisite scene in which everyone stoically munches frozen peas – actual frozen peas – as the quietly await the end of the world. That scene says more to me about the British character than any of Mularkey’s slightly saggy speeches. More peas please!