As my various social media news feeds become increasingly more frightening places to spend my time, Fantastic Mr Fox seemed like an ideal dollop of escapism from the madness of current events. Roald Dahl’s messianic fox has been the subject of numerous adaptations that have been forced to get creative with the story’s limited action (it’s basically some digging, some waiting and a big dinner), and I was excited to see what Arthur Darvill and Sam Holcroft had come up with for their outing at The Lyric Hammersmith.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the chilling tale of a starving proletariat desperately fleeing the bloodthirsty xenophobia of a mad autocrat, who had invaded their land driven by a cult of fear and protectionism. Admittedly, it’s a light touch, but in their adaptation Darvill and Holcroft have knitted some keen social observation into the story of Mr Fox and company, rejecting individualism and isolationism in favour of teamwork, tolerance and what Nigel Farage would probably call ‘rampant socialism’.
Greg Barnett’s fox isn’t quite George Clooney in the charm department, starting out all arrogance and Elvis Presley hip swings, but this feels like an intentional decision. When Mr Fox’s tail is lost to the farmers, he loses his balance, literally and figuratively, and must learn that it’s not always possible to do it all on your own. A heart-warming lesson, this take on the story also allows for a really feisty performance from Lillie Flynn as the heavily pregnant Mrs. Fox, desperate to get out of the den and into the action, tired of being pinned down and underestimated as an expectant mother.
The musical never really hits the Minchin-like heights it clearly aspires to, but it’s got a few cracking tunes and retains all the gore and silliness you could hope to find in Dahl – within the first five minutes a singing bird is knocked off by one of the farmers, and in their introductory song they delight in pulling intestines out of rubber chickens and cackling about the variety of ways they could dispose of the elusive Mr. Fox. In this vein, Richard Atwill is a particular treat. Channeling what I can only assume is Hedley Lemarr from Blazing Saddles with a Ukip membership, he plays Farmer Bean with an almost-religious zeal, doubling up as a drunken Rat propagating the idea that Mr. Fox doesn’t need friends any more than a rat needs fleas.
The show’s design aesthetic seems to be Dahl via Sports Direct, and draws a clear line between the world of the animals – bold, bright and ready to star in an exercise video – with the wellies and anoraks of Bunce, Boggis and Bean. The set takes some time to come into its own, there is one point amidst all the digging where down is up and up is down, but the pulsing beat of Darvill’s score keeps the tension high and the audience gripped where it needs to.
Matilda it may not be, but Fantastic Mr Fox is a fun, imaginative take on an old favourite that decries the perils of narrow-minded discrimination and celebrates the most unlikely of allies coming together to help one another (why the fox didn’t just eat the irritating rabbit I’ll never fully understand). I may not have quite escaped my troubles during its runtime, but Fantastic Mr Fox left my cockles warmed and my spirits lifted.
Fantastic Mr Fox is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until 19 February 2017. Click here for more details.