Last night saw the first full preview performance of Wolf's Child, the outdoor drama production by the renowned WildWorks theatre company. Staged in the grounds of Felbrigg Hall, a 17th century Jacobean country house close to the North Norfolk coast and now owned by the National Trust, Wolf's Child is a site specific work, written and conceived as the jewel in the crown of this year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival. It will be performed every evening (except Sundays) between now and May 23rd.
The first planned performance on Tuesday was cancelled because of dangers caused by the high winds, so last night was, in effect, the world premiere. My volunteer rota had me down as an Event Steward, with responsibilities to include 'Coach Chaperone / Box Office Assistant / Tramper Mobility Scooters', and my instruction was to report to the Theatre Royal at 17.00hr. The final weather check, and decision to go ahead with the performance would be taken one hour earlier - the winds were still gusting strongly right through the morning. Cancelling would mean another round of phone calls, text messages and e-mails to all the ticket holders as well as performers and stewards.
First advice to any volunteers listed as Event Steward for Wolf's Child. If your shift starts at 17.00hr, that is the time that the coach LEAVES the Theatre Royal in order to get through the rush hour traffic in order to arrive at Felbrigg by 18.00hr. If you arrive at five minutes past, the coach will have left without you.
The coach was filled with a mixture of 'Crow Stewards', whose job is to dress up and, in character, escort an audience of 250 along the meandering woodland paths of Felbrigg Hall to the various sets; and 'Maids', who perform as a chorus in several of the scenes. They have all been travelling out to Felbrigg for rehearsals for the last month, and there is a real cameraderie on the coach, as well as an air of excitement and anticipation at finally performing in front of a live audience.
On arrival at Felbrigg, the wind is blowing, the rain has started, and waterproof and windproof jackets seem more appropriate than the light cotton costumes that the maids are going to be wearing. Whilst I await my instructions the maids are taken through a vocal warm up and a final run through of their parts, and the 'crows' are given a final briefing to take account of some last minute changes and amendments to the route the audience will take.
Because this is a site specific piece, the company arrived with only an outline of how the final show would appear. As rehearsal got under way Artistic Director Bill Mitchell familiarised himself with the landscape of the Felbrigg Hall estate, sets were conceived and built and the script was finalised. The version that the audience gets to see is the result of much experimentation, fine tuning, and collaborative suggestion. This is what has made the whole experience so immersive and rewarding for the volunteers involved in the project.
By seven o'clock the audience are beginning to arrive. I am charged with checking tickets and general meet-and-greet. Hot food and a bar is available, and the pulled pork baps look delicious. Off-road buggies have been arranged for those who have requested mobility assistance, so my main role is to make sure that the audience is briefed, and ready for the off at 7.45pm. Main tips for anyone coming for the show - wear sensible shoes, dress appropriately for the weather, and remember to use the toilets before you are led through the gates for the start of the performance. Once the audience were past the main house I was taken to change into a crow's costume, and allowed to join the performance for a one-night-only chance to be a part of 'Wolf's Child'.
The performance follows a path between a number of individual locations. After passing the main house the route enters the woods. By this time the sun is setting and the light is fading, as the audience are led deeper and deeper into the woods. At each location they are chaparoned and guided by the crows into a circle to watch the action. Some of the performers are already in place by the time the audience arrive. Others suddenly appear from within the surrounding woodland, accompanied by much flapping and kerfuffling by the crows. The dialogue and song sets each scene as the action unfurls, with haunting sound effects appearing to come from deep within the woods, and atmospheric lighting allowing the audience to become mesmerised and immersed in the story.
By the time it is completely dark we are following the torches of the crows as we pick our way through the woods. Lanterns pick out some of the route, but otherwise it is a case of looking where you are going, and avoiding the inevitable tree roots, twigs and puddles. As we arrive at each successive set the effect becomes more and more magical, and the audience is totally transfixed. There is no distracting chatter and everyone keeps their mobile phones and cameras in their pockets.
Only at the dramatically lit finale, when the entire have taken their bows to raptuous applause, do we start to pick up on the audience reaction. 'The best show I have ever seen' was just one comment that I heard personally.
As I got on the coach for the journey back to Norwich I felt extremely honoured to have been just a very small part of this production. I also felt slightly jealous of all the volunteers who are involved with Wolf's Child, either as maids or as crows. They are having a unique chance to work directly with an amazing theatre company, and to see the project right through from early rehearsals to final performance.
If you are sent out to Felbrigg as a volunteer steward, make the most of the experience. If you are involved with the production as a crow or maid, enjoy the rest of your performances. And, if you are attending a performance as part of the audience, you are certainly in for an unforgettable evening (and hopefully a warm summer evening and a glorious sunset).
Performances run until May 23rd, although some performances may already be sold out. Contact the Festival Box Office - 01603 766400, or book online at www.nnfestival.org.uk or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
Pick up a brochure, or go online, for details of the whole of this year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival programme.