Fantastic Mr Fox
by Roald Dahl
Adapted for stage and lyrics by Sam Holcroft
Directed by Maria Aberg
Composer and lyricist Arthur Darvill
Additional lyrics Al Muriel, Darren Clark
Designed by Tom Scutt
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton and Curve Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith production
NST, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Saturday 26th November 2016, 14.00
Richard Atwill – Rat / Farmer Bean
Greg Barnett – Mr Fox
Patrick Burbage – Bird #2
Raphael Bushay – Badger / Farmer Boggins
Jade Croot- Kit
Lillie Flynn – Mrs Fox
Anne Fordham – Bird #3
Sandy Foster – Rabbit
Gruffield Glyn – Mole / Farmer Bunce
Richie Hart – Bird #1 / Musical Director
Edward Hole- ensemble
Kelly Jackson – Mouse
Tanya Shields – ensemble
A full Nuffield Theatre is a welcome sight, and something I haven’t seen in years. It’s rebranded as NST (Nuffield Southampton Theatres), in advance of the opening of their satellite city centre theatre. I just checked the Bath Theatre Royal website for something else and they’ve branded themselves as TRB. OK, we know the RSC and the NT but how far is this going to spread? And is it a good idea? Poor old philanthropist Lord Nuffield is seeing his shot at immortality via donations diluted.
This is the world premiere of a production set to run until July 2017, after its nationwide tour. I suspect it will finish up in the West End for a very long run measured in years after that. That’s why we have a top director like Maria Aberg, and a major set design from Tom Scutt (who designed King Charles III). There couldn’t be a greater contrast with Maria Aberg’s RSC Doctor Faustus this year, and she has brought Jade Croot over from that production (where she was Helen of Troy) to play Kit, the Fox’s …er … kitten. Maria Aberg directed my favourite play of 2013, the RSC As You Like It, . and I saw her Doctor Faustus twice this year. The adaptation is by Sam Holcroft, whose Rules For Living was one of the funniest plays of the last several years. So a truly heavyweight team for a children’s show, though the track record of success for Roald Dahl adaptations is extremely good.
It’s a musical, aimed at all the family. We have a live three piece band, on view on high (dressed as birds). The set is like a blue three tier wedding cake with revolving working areas at every level. There are many subtle touches. When the foxes are in their den, they have giant soap powder boxes. When they have been driven out and the human farmers enter the den, the soap boxes are back to normal size.
The cast are highly professional, way above the normal “children’s theatre” standard. Greg Barnett played Mr Fox with a dashing dash of Captain Flasheart in Blackadder IV. Sandy Foster’s Rabbit was the main comic turn, always enthusiastic and funny. The script assembles the slow logical badger, the distracted short-sighted mole and th feisty mouse, with her punch-line “Don’t lift me up!” As with Watership Down earlier in the year (but more so) the costumes are “minimal animal”. e.g. Mr Fox and Mrs Fox and Kit are in orange track suits with bushy tails, and symbolic hard surface ears on a headband. Mouse and Rat just have tails and front teeth. Badger has a black and white sports top. Mole has big cricket gloves and goggles. It works very well.
We felt for the three farmers, doubling as badger, mole and rat with ultra high speed changes. The music is good, and the singing top quality all round.
Mrs Fox (Lillie Flynn) and Mr Fox (Greg Barnett)- from NTS Twitter feed
On the script, it’s somewhat PC with the pregnant vixen, Mrs Fox saving the day. She is played beautifully by Lillie Flynn. Greg Barnett and Lillie Flynn shine in their power duets too. Great singing. My companion was vexed at the line “Pregnancy is not an illness” because as she says, while that is true, and some women sail through, some have dreadful morning sickness, some feel exhausted, some don’t. There is a wide range of reactions, and as the adult women in the audience will nearly all have given birth, it’s risky. There will be many mums-to-be with their older children watching, some will undoubtedly feel put-down or angry at the statement. I’d still play her as pregnant, tough and resourceful, but I’d cut that line. Mind you, on this Saturday afternoon, as with us, there were a large percentage of grandparents with grandkids. This is true of any kids’ event. The world has changed. I never went anywhere with any of my grandparents ever!
There is a lot of comedy, though I was surprised that the target audience were often too enthralled to laugh. I heard little gasps in many places. The case in point was the cellar scene, when they have broken into the cellar as a group and everything goes wrong. It’s full of very funny bits of direction, action and lines, and I expected the audience to be roaring with laughter. They weren’t. I believe the younger kids found it tense rather than funny. They were on the edge of their seats. It lost out on adult laughter because we’re only a few days into a long run. You only perfect the comic timing for this sort of complex ensemble scene in front of a live audience, and they were not quite there. The rabbit, the funniest, audience-identification character, has a large bucket on her head, and keeps blundering into a big green switch button. I thought something was meant to happen as the switch was pressed, and it didn’t, leaving her spare. She is a very funny mover and the bucket rendered her static. It looks like a real opaque plastic bucket, and to make it funnier, she needs to be able to actually see through it … if you can’t see at all, you do have to stay still for fear of walking off the edge of the stage. Trick bucket needed!
The music showed the versatility of the three piece (with two able to drum) playing keyboards, acoustic bass, bass guitar, guitar and opening each half with unaccompanied singing (no plot spoilers). The song styles were not unexpected, often starting out as if you knew the song … if it does the long West End run, you probably will.
The notices in the lobby stated 2 hours 30 minutes with one interval. We were out in 2 hours 10 minutes, including interval.
We had three kids with us, five, eleven, thirteen. However much they might appreciate the music and dance and action, I wouldn’t recommend it for teenagers, unless they’re doing dance and music. Too young for them. The five year old was entranced and enthralled. She could talk about it at length and in detail afterwards (but on the way here her recitation of Roald Dahl story titles was pretty near complete). A hallmark, listening to the gasps and sighs, is that the 5+ range found it genuinely involving, tense and exciting, and also there was enough in the clever lyrics and business to please adults.The eleven year old loved the gruesome stuff with the farmers and chickens at the start and the stuff throughout, such as Boggis wanting a pee while they’re waiting to shoot the foxes. Right at the start, as with all pantomimes too, a couple of very young kids were taken out.
An excellent production, with a fine script. I have a feeling the image on the poster will be familiar for years to come.
SAM HOLCROFT on this blog:
Rules For Living, by Sam Holcroft, National Theatre, 2015