Ambassadors Theatre, 10th September 2018
I had not seen Dawn King’s feted breakthrough play Foxfinder but I can see why it caused such a stir when it appeared in 2011 and why it is being made into a film. A near(ish) post-war dystopia, where a shadowy authoritarian regime has taken power following economic collapse and has elevated the fox to an existential threat to agricultural production. Think folk horror, Crucible, 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Witchfinder General; a disquieting vision of a society ruled through fear and false ideology. (The foxes in our garden are bloody annoying and there is an unpleasant history of rabbit massacre which I will refrain from detailing here, but humanity’s arch enemy seems a tad harsh).
Unfortunately this production doesn’t really conjure up the required unease and at times the cast actually looked a little uncomfortable in their imagined world. The set design from Gary McCann, where basic farmhouse kitchen merges into woodland, is a solid start though jars a little in the proscenium stage of the Ambassadors. This is, by old-skool West End standards, an intimate theatre but this is still a play that is probably more suited to a more claustrophobic setting. (Mind you designer Rae Smith pulled off an extraordinary design coup for Barney Norris’s otherwise slightly underwhelming rural saga at the Bridge Theatre recently). Paul Anderson’s lighting, (bar a couple of missed spots), and Simon Slater’s sound and composition also fit the bill, though once again I could imagine a more dramatic realisation in a more modern space.
Rachel O’Riordan, (who will be moving to the Lyric Hammersmith next year after a very successful stint at the Sherman Cardiff), is a director of proven pedigree, most notably with Gary Owen’s excellent plays. Here however she cannot seem to ratchet up sufficient atmosphere and tension. This in large part I think to the cast. Now I gather that Iwan Rheon has something of a reputation from his stints on the telly in Misfits and as a baddie in Game of Thrones. Now in the interests of full disclosure I have no view on this Game of Thrones caper. I don’t have the patience for multiple series viewed through a screen. 3 hours tops for me. Maybe in two parts. And in the theatre where stories come alive and technology can’t mask mediocrity. A text, some actors, an audience. That’s all you need. And all those who try to bully me in to watching GoT by telling me it’s like Shakespeare always seems to be busy when I offer up the chance to see yet another Lear. Which tells me it isn’t really.
So this means I have no idea if Mr Rheon is a convincing screen presence. In Foxfinder I am afraid he didn’t really seem to get to grips with his character. William Bloor is a young zealot, still in his teens, who is the eponymous Foxfinder sent to investigate why the farm of Samuel Covey (Paul Nicholls) and Judith Covey (Heida Reed) is “underperforming”. The regime believes that an infestation of foxes is the cause, the fox having been elevated to demonic proportions in this debilitated world. William has been trained from an early age to root out and investigate the vulpine threat. The combination of his youth, inexperience and indoctrination should leave him with the fragile “certainty” of the true believer but we don’t really feel that at the beginning of this production. He comes across as more meter inspector than inquisitor.
Paul Nicholls and Heida Reed are also known more for their TV work than stage experience. Whilst individually they moreorless convince, Samuel is the bluff farmer who just wants to get William out of his hair as soon as he can whilst Judith is more concerned for the consequences of being found “guilty”, their relationship doesn’t feel comfortable, meaning the real reason for the farm’s failure is emotionally underpowered. As the three unravel in their different ways and begin to question what they believe we should be on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately though the drama just didn’t really catch fire. Bryony Hannah as the defiant neighbour Sarah Box (every dystopia needs one) was more persuasive. but didn’t have much to play with.
So a play with an excellent central conceit which I think weaves in enough plot development and moral questioning to enthral but needs to threaten and haunt to really work. Nothing wrong with serving up actors whose careers have focussed on the screen but in such an intense four hander maybe the marketing imperative here trumped the creative. Worth seeing but not as intriguing as I had hoped.