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Theatre Review Inventive response to the call of the wild Fri Dec 22

White Fang
Park Theatre, London

THIS is not so much a reinterpretation of Jack London’s book as a reinvention. In the original, we follow the adventures of a wolf with one foot in the human world and another in the wild, but here Jethro Compton’s two-act play has become a consideration of the similarly conflicted life of Lyzbet Scott, a native American of the Yukon trying to keep alive the old ways of her murdered parents while seeking an accommodation with the European outlook of her adoptive grandfather.

Not everyone will appreciate the departure from London’s much-loved book, but the key point is that it works. The main themes of the novel — the struggle for identity and the savagery of the human condition — are just as relevant in Lyzbet’s story, if not more so.

And, for those who might regret the disappearance of White Fang as a central character, there’s consolation in the fact that his services are at least retained as Lyzbet’s hunting companion, ally and soulmate albeit in puppet form, facilitated by the actors in Warhorse fashion.

Mariska Ariya is excellent as the fiery young Lyzbet, while Bebe Sanders puts in an admirable shift as Curly, a non-native admirer who urges Lyzbet to fight for her ancestral lands and, in particular, to reject the idea of being sent to a residential school for Indians.

A well-constructed plot is pitched against the atmospheric backdrop of a snowy set, haunting original music by Jonny Sims, fine acapella singing from the six-strong cast and a soundscape of whistling wind and wolf howls that has audience members involuntarily pulling up the collars of their coats.

There are minor gripes, however. Unaccountably, both Lyzbet and Curly speak in a deep southern drawl that is at odds with their roots in the frozen northlands of the Northwest territories.

And the myriad scene changes, some 20 in all, sometimes make it tricky to keep up with what’s going on and the corner stage arrangement in this tiny theatre gives almost every seat a restricted view. That renders it difficult to follow the action in the lower regions, where the White Fang puppeteers do much of their work.

Nonetheless, this is a play of substance. Compton, a Cornishman with a fascination for the wild west, has not only captured the feel of London’s novel but justified his decision to take it in a new direction.

Runs until January 13, box office: parktheatre.co.uk

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