‘It feels as though we’ve seen it all before’: FOXFINDER – West End ★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews, Ticket recommendations by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 5 January 2019

Timing is everything. When Foxfinder opened at the Finborough in December 2011, it was hailed as a ‘darkly thrilling’ new voice and subsequently earned its writer, Dawn King, a glut of awards from the Royal National Theatre Foundation Playwright scheme to a Pearson Award Playwright-in-Residence bursary.

Foxfinder, for want of a better word, is a dystopian vision. There’s a lot of it about these days as King is the first to admit in her interesting interview in the programme. Clearly what she felt seven years ago has become an even greater reality with the fear whipped up before and after Brexit, a Trumpian White House and the Alt-Right preying on fear of immigrants with rich electoral rewards.

So you’d think that King’s political metaphor in the shape of an England in the grip of fear of annihilation by the lowly fox with all its attendant aberrations of surveillance and authoritarian threat would certainly have an impact.

The strange thing is, though, that somehow – and, as I say, it has something to do with timing – it feels as though we’ve seen it all before. And in much more frightening guise. Namely, The Handmaid’s Tale.

King’s Foxfinder is unquestionably, however, a warning, and in most respects, a credible one. We are deep in rural England, in the farmhouse of Sam and Judith, a young couple awaiting the arrival of a stranger who when he arrives looks for all the world as if he’s stepped straight out of a 17th-century witch-hunt setting.

And there begins Foxfinder’s problem because from the outset and as King digs deeper into the mystery of the stranger and his relationship with the Coveys, Foxfinder strikes ever stronger echoes as a contemporary retread of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Iwan Rheon’s William Bloor could have stepped straight out of it as a Witchfinder General. Wearing a broad brimmed black hat and rainproofs, young William – he’s only 19 it turns out – has been training since he was five years old for such a posting and has now been sent from central government to check up on the Covey’s farming productivity.

It’s down. And with the rain steadily pouring and fields flooded, it’s even less likely they will meet their quota target, thus putting the well-being of the country in danger.

© Pamela Raith, Bryony Hannah as Sarah Box, and Heida Reed as Judith Covey, friendship stretched under pressure…

To Bloor’s eyes and mindset, the fox lies behind everything. It is everywhere, ready to pounce. There is even, as James VI once decreed in his Daemonologie, a compendium from which he reads, describing the demonic features of foxes and their stratagems in which, as with the belief in witchcraft, the non-existence or invisibility of something can be used precisely to prove its very existence.

Fake news and the (il)logic of present day apocalyptic belief is not very far away. King catches that and expounds on it with great skill in the context of seeing the fox as the great enemy and those who argue against its omnipresence as `traitors’ and `collaborators’.

Rachel O’Riordan’s production in Gary McCann’s diaphanously beautiful painted forest and wooden staircase setting do their best to create an emotional and physical landscape of apprehension and increasing terror. Indeed, the last fifteen minutes with Bloor’s mental collapse provide us with the production’s most gripping moments.

© Pamela Raith, Paul Nicholls as Sam and Heida Reed as Judith Covey, married couple not squaring up in a fox-obsessed society…

But in between there are personality and plotting credibility gaps and though a strong cast – Paul Nicholls, Heida Reed (Elizabeth in Poldark), Call the Midwife’s Bryony Hannah and Iwan Rheon produce nuanced portrayals of respectively a stubborn, guilt-riddled husband, a strong-minded wife, a friend who betrays her neighbour to save her own family and Rheon’s quietly fanatical ideologue – the actual venue somehow mitigates against it.

Perhaps in the Finborough, the build up of tension, the claustrophobic sense of Nature and the countryside encroaching on human lives might have made a deeper impression.

King certainly and very presciently felt the tenor of the times seven years before our present predicament crashed in upon us and elucidates it with almost convincing detail. She’s now evidently much in demand and Foxfinder, apart from having been translated and produced elsewhere (including Germany), is itself being prepared for a big screen version.

King has read the runes and I’ve no doubt we can look forward to much more from her. This revival, though, doesn’t quite hit the mark. Very, very strange.

Foxfinder
by Dawn King

Cast:

Samuel Covey: Paul Nicholls
Judith Covey: Heida Reed
William Bloor: Iwan Rheon
Sarah Box: Bryony Hannah

Director: Rachel O’Riordan
Set & Costume Designer: Gary Mcann
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Composer & Sound Designer: Simon Slater
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Fight Director: Bret Yount

Understudy:
Vicki Davids,
Patrick Fleming

Presented by Bill Kenwright

First perf of this production of Foxfinder at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, Sept 6, 2018

Foxfinder was originally presented at the Finborough Theatre in December 2011

Review published on this site, Sept 17, 2018

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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.