July 01, 1997

Blood Simple

Wolf Lullaby
by Hilary Bell

Griffin Theatre Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

A large white kitchen chair dominates the minimal set for Hilary Bell’s powerful new play, Wolf Lullaby. Denoting a child’s perspective of the adult world it dwarves the two normal sized chairs set next to it. And when Lizzie, aged nine, climbs into it clutching her dolly, it also amplifies the enormity of the emotions and anxieties this play manages to conjure.

Lizzie lives with her mother, Angela, a hairdresser in a small town. Warren, Lizzie’s father, lives separately but in the first scene -a vignette of the ordinariness of the modern fractured family- they make plans to get together for Christmas. Wolf Lullaby is about everyday concerns, a sort of miniature family soapie as Angela and Warren bicker while Lizzie exploits both their guilt and their devotion to her. But gradually, a different kind of menace gathers around the action like a pool of dark blood.

The local policeman takes Lizzie to the station for pinching textas from the local shop. He puts her in the cells in an ignorant attempt to frighten into her a sense of right and wrong. Other questions arise. Two cage birds have been found strangled at school. Then a small child’s body is found hidden among weeds and bricks on waste ground. The local children kept the body a secret for two days. There are puncture marks in the boy’s neck and he has been strangled. There are more visits to the station. The mother becomes more apprehensive, the father withdraws.

Wolf Lullaby audaciously attempts to place us inside a both fearful and unknowable circumstance – the murder of a child by another child. The play reminds us of the notorious Liverpool case when two boys led away a smaller boy, murdered him and left him on a railway line. It also raises those circular riddles of nature and nurture. Is such behaviour inherent ? Or if it is acquired from whom do we learn it ? As the child’s crime becomes more evident the approriately named Sergeant Armstrong pronounces about the nature of evil, that you can read it in the eyes. As in the eyes of a wolf perhaps. The wolf Lizzie describes as seeking to devour her,that causes her to write in chalk on a wall- I murder so that I may come back.

Director John O’Hare has kept this play compact and highly focused, a strategy enhanced by the confines of the Space. Designer Genevieve Blanchette has the walls covered in densely packed chalk scrawl -like Bart Simpson’s pointless detention lines- and the huge white chair doubles as a dressing table, a desk, a bunk in a cell and, subliminally perhaps, echoes Andy Warhol’s grim screen print of that icon of vengeance, the electric chair.

The performances are excellent. Lisa Hensley and Sean O’Shea move from the miniature naturalism of marital discord to the more stylised scenes with Lizzie and the Sergeant. As Lizzie, Susan Prior is outstanding. Often when actors play child roles they resort to that dreadful repertoire of tropes and mannerisms we know all too well. The tapeworm squirms and coy gawkiness, the exaggerated slang and Kylie Mole squinting. Prior steers around all these. She is often eerily still, and when she isn’t, her hyperactivity is convincing. Her voice inflexions always support and extend the complexity of her conflict. In short we believe her performance. We even follow when Bell frames the narrative with skip rhymes and chants, self-conscious quotation from the folksong Liverpool Lullaby and the signature melody from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

As the sergeant, Anthony Phelan handles the difficult task of presenting a rigid authoritarian personality who then, as the play progresses, moves closer to the child and becomes protective of her as her mother, in horror, shuts her out. The final scene between the policeman and the mother is one of Bell’s best, embodying as it does all that is problematic in the play. As the mother begins to consider the notion of pure evil, the cop, confronted with the simple ordinariness of the child and her fears, cannot sustain such abstractions any longer.

John O’Hare has staged Wolf Lullaby with economy and intelligence and it is performed with a clarity and feeling that is almost hypnotic. There are some excesses, occasional over-writing and some discrepancies in Lizzie’s dialogue- when she uses a word like brainwashed for example- but these are the merest quibbles. Wolf Lullaby is a strong play which takes us inside the sad little chalk outline indicating the body at the crime scene and allows us to imagine things we don’t know and respond to them with something more than just our reflexes. I can think of no better reason for going to the theatre than that.

The Adelaide Review, July 1997.

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