Review: Wolf Cub, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs ★★★☆☆

Maxine (Clare Latham) has had her share of problems growing up in rural America in the 1980s. Having been abandoned by her mother at a young age, she’s grown up with her abusive, alcoholic father who beats her, demeans her and generally neglects her.

It’s no surprise that she’s forced to look out for herself in life - like skinning a rabbit she has caught because he forgot to feed her when she was eleven or descending into a Nicaraguan drug cartel in her late-teens

Ché Walker's new play Wolf Cub at Hampstead Theatre is a strange beast - it is part-poetry, part-psychological thriller, part-magical realism. Performed entirely by Latham, and both written and directed by Walker, Maxine recounts 15 years of her life from the age of 9 to the age of 24. 

Clare Latham in Wolf Cub. Photo: Robert Day.

Walker casts his net wide, using Maxine’s story to cover topics such as social inequality, domestic abuse and child abuse, the Nicaraguan Contras and the Iran–Contra affair, the police assault of Rodney King and the LA uprising, CIA informatives, and the Northridge Earthquake.

It makes for a lot of ground to cover in the play’s 1 hour and 20 minute runtime. And that’s not to mention the added layer of Maxine's regular transformations into a wolf when she is feeling emotionally charged, whether in anger or in love - though no one else can see these metamorphosis.

It’s a challenging role for Latham to get her teeth into but the breadth of the role and the ages covered (each segment of the play is a flashback to her younger self) prove tricky. An adult acting as a child is always a challenge but an adult re-enacting a childhood conversation with a newborn wold or a wolf comprised of stars in the sky is even trickier. It doesn’t always work.

Clare Latham in Wolf Cub. Photo: Robert Day.

But the main challenge for the production is whether Walker can tie together the play's realism, particularly the way in which he has embedded real-life events into the narrative, with the magical realism of Maxine’s transformations. Unfortunately, the two elements often seem like parallel events happening independently of each other.

That’s not to say that there are not moments where it does work - a scene where Maxine transformed during a sexual encounter is incredibly honest and touching (and elevated by Shelia Atim’s musical composition) - but for the most part it feels like there are two stories in motion here.

What Walker and Latham both do well is the comic and lighter moments - Latham delivering Walker’s lines straight, with a dry drawl that wrings every ounce of comedy from them. There also feels a genuine anger to Walker’s writing that someone like Maxine can be so failed by her family, by power structures and by society as a whole.

Wolf Cub is at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 7 May

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