Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: WOLF CUB, Hampstead Theatre

Extraordinary writing and acting creates theatrical magic

Review: WOLF CUB, Hampstead Theatre Review: WOLF CUB, Hampstead Theatre Sometimes, but not very often, one sits in an audience and one doesn't just see, one feels, with a shiver, the awesome power of theatre - that is what Wolf Cub does to you.

On a set slashed by a crack in the road's asphalt, we learn of a life slashed by an absent mother and abusive father. In rural America, in the "Overfly" between the coastal cities' confidence, Maxine learns to manage the aching loss of one parent and the punches and kicks of the other by being preternaturally tough, physically and mentally, and using the kind of intelligence and energy given to few. She picks her way through the dangers at home and offsets them by courting danger outside, encountering a wolf cub's birth when out shooting rabbits in the forest.

In the vulnerability of the new born, she sees her own helplessness, but in the no-nonsense efficiency of the mother, she sees her own power. In her mind's eye, her own eyes turn lupine yellow, her skin grows fur, her teeth lengthen and sharpen and, like the lone wolf, she knows she will walk through the world on her terms, doing much more than merely surviving, for however long that life lasts.

Ché Walker, on writing and directing duties, has created a prose poem that uses pyrotechnic language (there's one star-bursting metaphor after another, dazzling similes piled on top of each other, extraordinary scenes of violence and tenderness) to reach back 40 years to the USA of Ronald Reagan.

But this Reagan is not the hero recovering from the assassin's bullet, not the avuncular uncle with the twinkling eye and the rehearsed joke, but the man who backed the vicious Contras in Nicaragua, who instigated a domestic War On Drugs that criminalised millions, who constructed an incarceration state within a state. His policies paved the way for the cops who choked George Floyd, protected and promoted the gun lobby that keeps assault weapons on America's streets today and led to the prosecution of wars without end somewhere in the world. As Reagan himself would do, the language draws you in so seductively that the ferocity of the subject matter is almost lost - but not quite.

Catching this theatrical lightning in a bottle, American actress, Clare Latham, prowls the space, girlish one moment, hard-edged the next, never a victim, but never completely in charge of her own destiny. This is a performance of the highest order, Maxine a creation both anchored to the dangerous ground on which she stands, but also soaring above it like the wolf in the sky that she forces herself to see. Latham's appreciation of the rhythms of Maxine's speech, of her understanding of power, of her fearlessness in sex and violence is extraordinary, simultaneously compelling and repulsive but always, always palpably human, with that edge of the lycanthrope never far away. Anyone hoping for an acting award for which Latham is eligible can give up right now.

The 100 minute monologue zips by, the story of Maxine's life indelibly printed on our minds. On the way home, I wondered if the show, well, experience, was an illusion, because such subject matter can be gruelling, exacting its price on our emotions - but there was no sense of exhaustion in me. Any such fatigue was held at bay by my wonder at the corralling of theatre's unique storytelling weapons to lull us into something that isn't submission, more a wide-eyed astonishment that the familiar can be raised to something different by sheer excellence. It was as if we were repeatedly seeing that first shaft of sunlight after a storm.

Landmark theatre - do not miss it.

Wolf Cub is at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 7 May

Photo Robert Day

Review: KILLING THE CAT, Riverside Studios Photo
Existential questions abound in world premiere of a musical that does not make the fur fly

Now Onsale: IDIOTS ASSEMBLE: SPITTING IMAGE THE MUSICAL at the Phoenix Theatre  Photo
Tickets From £30 for Idiots Assemble Spitting Image The Musical

Cast Set For the UK Tour of GREATEST DAYS The Official Take That Musical Photo
The full cast has been announced for The Official Take That Musical GREATEST DAYS, with a book by award-winning playwright Tim Firth.

IDIOTS ASSEMBLE: SPITTING IMAGE THE MUSICAL Will Premiere in the West End in May Photo
Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical  written by a tour de force comedy team made up of  Al Murray (The Pub Landlord) Matt Forde (The Political Party) and double Olivier award winner  Sean Foley (The Upstart Crow, The Play What I Wrote) makes its West End Premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in London. 

From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

March 22, 2023

Taut and razor-sharp verbatim adaptation of a famous debate from the 60s is entertaining and enlightening

Review: LEAVING VIETNAM, Park TheatreReview: LEAVING VIETNAM, Park Theatre
March 21, 2023

Richard Vergette's one-man play is never less than engaging, but one wonders why here and why now?

Review: MACBETH, Southwark Playhouse BoroughReview: MACBETH, Southwark Playhouse Borough
March 17, 2023

Flabbergast Theatre take a bold approach to a familiar play and hit and miss along the way

Review: GUYS & DOLLS, Bridge TheatreReview: GUYS & DOLLS, Bridge Theatre
March 16, 2023

As perfectly realised a revival as one could ever hope to see, full honour paid to both the incomparable source material and the times in which we live now

Review: STILL HERE, Jack Studio TheatreReview: STILL HERE, Jack Studio Theatre
March 15, 2023

Mari Lloyd's new play will speak loud and clear to young people today, but misses a chance for dramatic development as its structure all but disallows the chance to see its subjects together in the same space.