At the village hall, the choirmaster brings news of a slight adjustment to the plan. “I’ve successfully equipped most of the choir with AK47s but I’ve had to plump for M16s for the altos because they have a tendency to get a bit flappy.” Juxtaposing mundane rural activity with bloody revolution, “The Wolf from the Door” imagines a nationwide uprising. Award-garlanded young scribe Rory Mullarkey abandons prosaic political drama in favor of a surreal fantasia in sixteen snapshot scenes. But although James Macdonald’s beautifully poised production at the Royal Court honors the writing, even he cannot render the approach wholly successful.  

A cross between a road-movie and a plan of attack, Mullarkey’s obliquely funny play is led by articulate aristocrat Catherine (smoothly ruthless Anna Chancellor), who begins by picking up homeless wanderer Leo (Calvin Demba) at a quiet train station. She’s not, as he imagines, after his body. In fact, she’s chosen him because he’s beautiful enough to be the figurehead for the revolution.

All over the country people are waiting for a sign from her before mounting a collective attack on the system which keeps people in a state of “division, slavery and poverty, in many cases economic, in all cases spiritual.” And that sign turns out to take place in the local branch of a supermarket chain where the hapless deputy manager is beheaded (unseen on stage) by Leo.

From that point, Catherine and Leo’s activities achieve a bizarre but crisp logic. On their way to London they encounter supporters and detractors — their random encounter with a pair of fully costumed 17th century English Civil War re-enactors is a highlight — and Mullarkey’s evident enjoyment at playing with and twisting audiences’ expectations and sympathies is highly watchable.

Along the way, he whips up character with impressive economy, a feature feasted upon by Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley who deftly play rafts of characters between them, all with richly textured aplomb and unexpected pathos. By necessity, Leo is more of a cipher but Demba gives him a degree of consistency. The evening, however, belongs to Chancellor, whose immaculate timing and thoughtfulness finds tenderness in a merciless role.

Macdonald adds notable weight to his crisp and highly effective staging by interspersing scenes with blasts of Elgar, Mozart, Handel, Holst and beyond. Yet he cannot disguise the play’s weakness. The scene of flower-arranging masking political revolution echoes “The Manchurian Candidate,” but where the that film’s blackly comic handling of plot achieved shocking cumulative power, this play gradually runs out of steam. It’s intriguing to find a clearly gifted young writer investigating ideas in non-traditional forms, but here his structure and development aren’t strong enough to carry his dramatic idea.

London Theater Review: ‘The Wolf from the Door’ at the Royal Court

Royal Court Upstairs; 85 seats; £20, $33. Opened, Sept. 15, 2014; reviewed Sept. 17. Running time:<strong> 1 HOUR, 25 MIN</strong>.

  • Production: A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Rory Mullarkey.
  • Crew: Directed by James Macdonald. Sets and costumes, Tom Pye; lighting Peter Mumford; sound, Giles Thomas; production stage manager, Sarah Coates and Jules Richardson.
  • Cast: Anna Chancellor, Calvin Demba, Pearce Quigley, Sophie Russell.