Theatre review: Fantastic Mr Fox; But That Was Then

Greg Barnett as a thoroughly annoying but lovable Mr Fox with Richard Atwill as Rat
Greg Barnett as a thoroughly annoying but lovable Mr Fox with Richard Atwill as Rat
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It’s unashamedly the stage show of the 2009 film, in which Mr and Mrs Fox were played – vocally at least – by George Clooney and Meryl Streep; yet there’s slightly more than meets the eye, or the ear, in this touring stage version of Fantastic Mr Fox, at the King’s this week.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Alison Peebles and Billy McBain put in fine performances

Alison Peebles and Billy McBain put in fine performances

Oran Mor, Glasgow **

This is, after all, a story by Roald Dahl, whose compulsive misanthropy provides a fine basis for a piece of post-human theatre – adapted for the stage by Sam Holcroft, whose fiercely apocalyptic play Cockroach appeared at the Traverse in 2008 – in which the audience, young and old, is freely invited to identify with the animals, and despise their own human kind. And then there is, unavoidably, an extra political edge, now that fox hunting is back on the British political agenda; there is no way that a story which makes a family of foxes its heroes, and its human characters a bunch of destructive thugs with no understanding of the value of nature, can be taken as advocating the return of a sport in which the indefensible pursue the cuddly, brave and lovable.
All of that said, though, Dahl famously resists the temptation to make Mr Fox an unambiguous hero. He is a vain character, torn between love for his family and friends, and a boyish, immature individualism; and all of this is captured with a flourish in Greg Barnett’s performance as a thoroughly annoying Mr Fox, redeemed only by the love – and the equal courage and greater insight – of his wife, beautifully played and sung by Lilly Flynn. Presented on a complicated multi-layered set by the aptly-named Tom Scutt, accompanied by a live onstage band, and played out by a memorably hard-working 14-strong ensemble, the show is too long at just over two hours, and full of padding in the shape of over-extended songs, overlong conversations, and over-pitched comedy sequences. Yet the children love most of it; and by the end, they’re bouncing happily along with the closing song, while the cast of foxes – plus rabbit, mouse, mole, badger and a few birds – take a well-earned bow.

Peter McDougall’s latest play for A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor, by contrast, reads like a last gasp for the angry humanism that drove his early television plays, Just Another Saturday and Just A Boy’s Game. It’s impulse is humanitarian, without a doubt; it records the love felt by ageing writer James (beautifully played by Billy McBain) for his life’s partner Marcia, a once-famous actress now fading – in a bravura performance by Alison Peebles – into a defiant and sometimes still glamorous dementia.

The play’s problem, simply put, is that it ends where it should begin, with James’s beautiful monologue about his love for Marcia, even as she fades from his grasp; as a result, for most of its length, it seems aimless, over-dependent on pointless wordplay, and on the shock value of hearing an elderly grande dame shout obscenities at her stoical loved one. Yet there are two fine performances here, in an interestingly-styled production by Graeme Maley; and an all-too-familiar personal tragedy that now haunts our stages, whether we like to face up to it or not.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Fantastic Mr Fox at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, next week. But That Was Then at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.