On a football (sorry, ‘soccer’) pitch somewhere in Middle America, nine girls are passing the ball in an intricate spider web formation. Or stretching hamstrings, or gulping water. Sarah DeLappe’s ‘The Wolves’ entirely unfolds during a series of their pre-game warm-ups, but it’s full of the thrill of a game played at full tilt.
Entering its world is like stumbling onto the top deck of a 3.30pm bus: conversations overlap, insults land or ricochet back, alliances are formed and broken in brain-scramblingly fast exchanges. We don’t know anybody’s names. At first, it’s just one blur of girl. Then personalities start to shine through: like #46 (Annabel Baldwin), who’s gawky and homeschooled and who counters the taunts with an incredible spontaneous chant and display of ball skills. Or #7 (Lauren Grace), triumphant in eyeliner, who thinks she owns the pitch. Or #2 (Francesca Henry), who’s knitting scarves for the kids who are being held in cages at the border.
The other kids might make fun of #2’s whimsical approach to soothing her social conscience but one of the thrilling things about ‘The Wolves’ is how much these characters are locked into politics and the world beyond their little patch of green. They wonder if their ex-military coach was involved in Abu Ghraib. They debate what should happen to a Cambodian war criminal. They worry about spots and boyfriends and pads too, but that’s background noise. DeLappe’s drawn these girls not as the gossipy, image-obsessed in-fighters of teen movies, but as people, warming up into the adults they’re going to be.
Ellen MacDougall’s production is as tight, focused and technically accomplished as DeLappe’s script demands, even if Rosie Elnile’s giant inflatable set design doesn’t quite live up to its bouncy potential. Sometimes the speedy pace means that the story’s momentum feels contrived: especially the not-entirely-unexpected curveball in the last 15 minutes. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Tense with shifting team dynamics, this is as exhilarating a 90 minutes as you could hope to spend in the theatre, and it leaves you breathless, cheering these girls on.