Thursday 6 April 2017

Fantastic Mr Fox

Curve, Leicester
5th April 2017

Continuing their popular run of Roald Dahl classics, Curve have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton and the Lyric Hammersmith to produce Sam Holcroft’s shiny new adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, and it might just be one of the best Dahl adaptations I’ve seen. Sweet music composed by Arthur Darvill and bouncy and boundless direction from Maria Aberg complement the story’s moral while never straying into tweeness, and, appealing to children and adults alike, retains that vital element of candy coated macabre which has long been the key to Dahl’s success.

Mr Fox (Greg Barnett) is a fantastic raider; swift, smart and sly, for years he has taken it upon himself to provide for his family and subterranean community by taking a Robin Hood ‘steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor’ approach to the neighbouring farmers’ produce. However, he soon faces a crisis of confidence when his tail is shot off by the cruel farmer Bean (Richard Atwill), who has had enough of Mr Fox’s pilfering ways. Spurred on by his ramshackle team of furry friends, Mr Fox vows to reclaim his ‘Fantastic’ moniker by undertaking a raid to end all raids.

Holcroft and Aberg create strong characterisations, and while being (understandably) rather one-dimensional, each individual has their own unique and identifiable personality. A big hit with the children in the audience, Sandy Foster’s Rabbit is wildly goofy but endearingly enthusiastic, Jade Croot is feisty yet vulnerable as Mr Fox’s daughter and raiding apprentice, Kit, while Greg Barnett brings a level of charm to the egotistic Mr Fox. His hero complex is brought to the fore, as he tries and fails to complete his mission alone, leading to a satisfying message about embracing our own and others’ differences - Mr Fox’s lack of a tail, Mouse’s (Kelly Jackson) lack of height, Rabbit’s uncontainable energy – and uniting to get the job done, the phrase ‘stronger together’ has never been so relevant (making no allusions to certain political current events…).

Darvill’s songs (with lyrics by Holcroft, Darren Clark and Al Muriel) do a great job of enhancing, rather than overshadowing, the plot, and encompass a varied range of musical variety. From the rocky and earthy human songs, to the contrastingly airy and melodic tunes sung by the animal characters, there’s a real ‘Us vs Them’ thematic vibe which ebbs and flows as the show progresses. I especially enjoyed the opening number; a barbershop quartet of bluebirds begin their morning chorus only to be viciously shot down by the murderous farmers – an element of black humour I wouldn’t usually expect to find in children’s entertainment. This leads into a stomping musical introduction to the story’s villains; gluttonous layabout, Farmer Boggis (Raphael Bushay), the eccentric Farmer Bunce (Gruffudd Glyn), and ringleader, Farmer Bean, the meanest of them all. Richard Atwill particularly impresses, creating a fine balance between Bean’s steely corporate greed and maniacal rage, which contrasts nicely with his later appearance as the alcoholic, territorial Rat who traps Mr Fox when he fears having to share his abundance of cider.

One of the things I liked most about this production is its contemporaneity. Holcroft brilliantly infuses modern touches, such as iPods, with the classic fable quality of the source material. This is heightened by Tom Scutt’s sporty design, the set looks a gymnast’s paradise, all abstract foam boulders and multilevel revolves. The tracksuits and leotards worn by Mr Fox and Co. are also an effective way of suggesting the animal characters’ agility while anthropomorphising them without being too cutesy.

Issues including the importance of sharing, teamwork, individuality, and being eco-friendly form a strong moral crux to the show, but there are many moments of delightful surrealism – I doubt I’ll forget the image of a wrestling, leotard-clad Rooster being held in a headlock by a Badger, surrounded by strung-up rubber chickens any time soon! – and jokes appealing to all ages to balance the preachiness. While youngsters are kept amused by poo and wee jokes (who doesn’t love a bit of toilet humour?) and Rabbit and Mole’s slapstick routines, adults can enjoy sly gags and double-entendres that daringly crossed into risqué terrain. Thankfully these whizzed right over the kids’ heads, hilarious as they were!

It’s rare to find a ‘family’ show that truly lives up to its promise of cross-generational fun, but Fantastic Mr Fox is a triumph in its mass appeal as there’s something to enjoy for kids of all ages. Holcroft does a great job of crafting her own style while keeping Dahl’s original tone to the fore, and Aberg creates a colourful and action packed spectacle that doesn’t scrimp on character. This production is a great addition to the growing canon of Dahl stage adaptations, and is ideal for a pre-Easter theatrical treat. Fantastic by name, fantastic by nature.

Fantastic Mr Fox plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th April. For further UK tour dates please visit

The company of Fantastic Mr Fox. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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