[Warning: May contain spoilers]
W.C. Fields once said, ‘Never work with children or animals’. What Mr. Fields would have to say about a student-led production of a play populated by animal characters one can’t quite be sure. Having watched Call of the Wild though, he certainly wouldn’t have any cause to pity and patronise the directors with such a maxim. Far from it, Cassie Barraclough and Joe Murphy may be congratulated on their excellent casting. The initial discomfort of watching a half-naked young man padding about in body paint whilst his counterparts lounged in prairie dresses and threw him sticks was not inconsiderable, it must be admitted. It is surprising, however, how quickly one becomes accustomed to these things.
In all seriousness, it is a rare pleasure to watch a cast maintain such flawless conviction in their characters, whether human or canine, and this feat is doubly impressive for the range of roles each actor was called upon to play. Lucy Fyffe in particular should be credited for both her versatility and her nuanced performances. By turns a brutal sailor, a pack dog under threat and a child, Fyffe’s characterisation was complete and totally engaging, her endearing simplicity as Mary eliciting an exclamation of adoration from the stalls. Indeed, Fyffe’s versatility encapsulates something of the essence of this production; an incredible energy and a confident mastery of a variety of tones. Fortunately for the audience this wasn’t the kind of energy you get from overexcited terriers, although the play did in its final scenes have a little of the puffed out pack after a long days’ run. In general though, the pace was carefully measured, with moments of comedy played alongside scenes of brutality without jarring. In fact, for a play whose synopsis might have the RSPCA-friendly members of the audience popping a few Prozac before curtain-up, Call of the Wild was at times ingeniously hilarious. Rhys Bevan stands out particularly in his role as Judge Miller, a kind of Black-Adder’s ‘Flashheart’ of the American South (see it to believe it, folks). Equally striking was the finely tuned comic timing and chemistry of Matt Gavan and Bella Hammad – never before has the boredom of the prostitute at the empty whining of her client been so simply and cuttingly exposed. Yet the comedy of these scenes is an important relief from the darker side of the production. The death toll in this story is high, and in presenting the brutality and violence the performance certainly doesn’t pull its’ punches (no pun intended). Truly heartbreaking, to take just one instance, was the mauling of Curly. Whilst all the cast should be applauded for their obviously extensive study and rehearsal of canine physicality, Ness Goulding’s dedication to and breathtakingly accurate rendering of a dog panicking in its cage stands above the rest, and made it all the more difficult to watch her cruel despatch. Yet amongst all the cast, the canine quality of the dog characters was balanced with what was at times a very piercing humanity. John-Mark Philo’s ‘Spitz’ was chillingly frightening in this respect, presenting a dominating stage presence so aptly suited to the territorial nature of his canine character whilst exuding a deeply human psychosis – all in all a raw, powerful and thrilling performance. To the technical team, those unsung heroes of the theatre; it is enough to say that they were well-matched to their cast and directors. Any group that can convincingly portray a dog sled team in Alaska suffering a blizzard in a theatre in Oxford gets my vote. And as if all this weren’t enough, the less artistically-minded of you might at least be tempted by the opportunity to watch scantily clad nubile young men and women frolicking around on a stage for a little over two hours. Whatever your reason, Call of the Wild is not to be missed.
– Megan Lynch