Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 27 March 2014

Father Nandru and the Wolves

Wilton's Music Hall ⋄ 18th March – 18th April 2014

A frustrating tangle.

Stewart Pringle

Julian Garner’s richly decorated folk play tells a story of community and kinship that has its heart and soul lodged firmly in the right place. Unfortunately, they’re two of the few elements which successfully cohere, and despite foot-stomping Gypsy music, gargantuan puppets and the warmth and magic of Wilton’s Music Hall itself, Father Nandru & the Wolves arrives on stage a frustrating tangle.

Told in two acts, it is essentially two stories: the first a Romeo & Juliet in which the lame son of a Roma dancing clan flees into the night with the disfigured daughter of a leading village family; the second a story of the last gasps of a communist regime tearing apocalyptically into a small religious community. They are tied loosely together by the presence of Father Nandru, a local drunk of questionable faith tormented by visions of wolves that obliquely foreshadow the coming storm.

They’re delivered in the rough rhyming couplets typical of mummering, which makes a strange fit for Garner’s language, which is frequently too florid to be sustained by a form that makes virtue of simplicity and boisterousness. The characters themselves are usually played by puppets, skilfully designed by Hanne Horte-Garner. As pieces of craftsmanship they are beautiful, but they’re often slackly manipulated, failing to burst into life and adding another layer of distance between the audience and a story which consistently lacks vigour.

Proceedings are scarcely helped by an insufficient performance by Jonathan Stone as Nandru. Confused the Father may be, but it shouldn’t be about his lines, and as he stumbles through and mashes up couplets any chance of his performance pulling Garner’s disparate tale together is lost.

Fortunately, there are a number of moments of pure joy where the potential in Garner’s project shines through. Scenes involving the colossal wolf puppets are thrilling, and a lengthy dance involving three goats which combine the gormless charm of those Muppets that sing “Mana Mana!” and the clickety-clack oddness of the Hobby-Horse from Wicker Man is a highlight.

The second half is also considerably more potent than the first, as the focus shifts from the beleaguered couple to the government’s attack on the village. There’s a visual inventiveness to the megaphone-stack named ‘THE END OF THE WORLD’ which is cranked into the air like a municipal hydra that snaps the story into life. A delicious piece of shadow-puppetry describing the destruction of the town is another moment of imaginative staging that makes some of Garner’s earlier decisions seem bafflingly underworked.

The final effect is of a piece unsure of its footing – excited by the possibilities of its melting pot construction but unable to tame them into a cogent whole. The message of strength through acceptance and integration is worthy, but it’s only casually related to the story of a cunning and resourceful community which underpins the more intriguing story of concealing the village’s church which emerges in the final minutes.

The evening closes with a splash of pure spectacle and more superb music from the Csergő Band, so if the story has flown by without really taking root in your imagination, you’re still unlikely to go home empty-hearted.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Father Nandru and the Wolves Show Info


Written by Julian Garner

Link http://wiltons.org.uk/

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