I’m not going to compare The Wolves to a certain other play that opened in London this year about teenage girls in middle America engaged in athletic competition. Even though there are some distinct parallels to draw. Even though there’s surely something to be said about these oddly matching American imports written by up-and-coming young women that depict more or less the same privileged slice of teen life as a metaphor for the country itself. But I’m going to resist. After all, is there anything worse when you’re a teenager than being compared to some other girl? Is there anything worse at any point in your life, really?
Well, yes. Obviously there are many worse things, and the governments of both this country and my own are doing some of them right now. There are genocides, and murder, and war crimes. In fact, The Wolves opens with a discussion of a few of them, teenage girls discussing Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot as they stretch before a soccer game, all rolling eyes and showing off and pop-pop-pop hyper-naturalistic dialogue. It’s the first of a series of snapshots, the lives of nine teenage girls told only in the moments before their weekend soccer matches, as they try to integrate a new player, impress potential uni scouts, and keep riding their unbeaten streak to nationals. Identified only by their jersey numbers, it’s a space outside the real world, insulated from its pressures—until they begin to intrude. Perhaps predictably.
Sarah DeLappe leans a little too heavily on strategic withholding of information as a source of tension, too many scenes punctuated by a sudden reveal of secrets from the girls’ lives outside of the Air Dome. And the information that does get revealed feels frustratingly imported directly from a teen drama: an abortion, an eating disorder, a dead parent. DeLappe makes no use of her setting to explore different depths, or even just to refract some of these well-worn stories specifically through an athletic lens. Because of the patchwork structure, none of the changes, reveals, or relationships are given enough time to land or to grow: every week the slate is wiped clean. Maybe that’s really what life was like when I was sixteen, nothing that happened on one Saturday mattering by the next, but I don’t think so—and even if it was, it doesn’t make for a drama that pays much respect to the emotional lives of its characters.
That’s the real problem. The nine Wolves’ passions and sorrows aren’t treated with any particular empathy, though I can’t tell if this is down to DeLappe’s writing or Ellen McDougall’s direction. As the play grows increasingly serious, more and more moments of teenage frivolity are paired with what feel like reminders that there are more important things. What’s a bad birthday party compared to genocide. What’s pre-game anxiety compared to death. Some of the little stones of gravity that drop into conversation play off well, but others seem to exist only to remind us how trivial these girls’ problems really are.
But they’re not trivial for the girls. And in a truly empathetic production, one that lovingly captured what it’s like to be a teenager, they wouldn’t be trivial to us, either. But McDougall and DeLappe never achieve this immersion in the characters’ emotional lives—so then what is the play for? To set the pain of teenage girls up on a stage for adults to smirk at? The Victorian-feeling Theatre Royal Stratford East, its stage flanked, in Rosie Elnile’s design, with flashy stadium-style lighting and carpeted with endless astroturf, only enhances the feeling that these characters are being set on display for our dispassionate and amused judgment. Perhaps the scenes would have more immediacy and intimacy in a smaller or less ornate space. Instead, the stage itself compounds the distance.
However, even though the play falls well short of revelatory, it’s a brisk and engaging 90 minutes, the sharp blackouts at the end of each scene creating propulsive forward momentum. There are some real gems of moments, even if they are just that: momentary. The cast, many of them recent grads, are particularly striking in their skilled physicality, embodying the many shades of awkwardness, arrogance, and athleticism without caricature. The play clips along compellingly, but as it hits each of its teen sport movie beats, it never feels greater than the sum of its parts.
And even though I promised I’d resist, I have to mention Dance Nation, which I loved, because I can’t stop wondering whether I would have liked The Wolves more if I’d seen it first (it was written first, and had its US premier several years ago). The mere fact of making space for female lives, for teenage lives, is important. And for some, maybe that simple fact alone is enough to render this play urgent and important, too. But not for me. The Wolves needs to do more than just show these lives—it needs to love them, too.
The Wolves is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17th November. More info here.