The fox becomes a metaphor for threats against the nation, specifically its economic prosperity, in Dawn King’s bold and tense 2011 play. Their status as an enemy of the people has reached mythic proportions. No one has seen one of the fiends for years, but a paranoid, failing state fosters the fanaticism to cover its own inability to cure the country’s ills.
The timing of this West End production of the play – which, delightfully, has made its way from tiny new writing theatre the Finborough, to the bright lights of Theatreland – couldn’t be more obvious as we sleepwalk towards Brexit. King’s simple conceit richly embodies multiple meanings – climate change, immigration, totalitarianism – while also beautifully illustrating how power exploits belief to create a melting pot of fanaticism. Even the absence of the poor scapegoated fox, the downtrodden populace is told, is evidence of their existence. We are in a world where dark forces dominate with an unspecified agenda and evidence, cause and effect, no longer rule. In this fever dream of England only belief matters.
King’s play is a neat, slick, streamlined four-hander which exists in an uncertain, liminal space where people act out of desperation, where state and private life blur. There’s a lot to play with, but this production feels a little neutered. Married farmers, Samuel and Judith Covey (Paul Nicholls and Heidi Reed) sit at their kitchen table awaiting the arrival of foxfinder who could ruin them. He suspects their farm is infested with foxes. And although he is their to investigate the potential infestation, such is the hysteria that even pair’s moral fitness is under scrutiny.
But the necessary creeping anxiety never manifests. They’re a sensible pair, it seems, taking it all in their stride in their rather charming house, all post-war austerity chic and cosy jumpers. For the first half of the play, they feel like they are swept along, waiting to be acted upon. Even when we learn of the death of their child, it plays as an almost perfunctory fact. Throughout, the tension fails to flow from stage to audience.
Iwan Rheon can deliver unpredictable menace at the drop of a hat, which he does in spades. His Gestapo-chic foxfinder is clipped and chilly but the youthful vulnerability which proves his undoing doesn’t feel well explored, and the falling away of his rose-tinted spectacles of indoctrination feels too sudden as a result. But he’s watchable to a fault and things are always more exciting when he’s on stage.
Behind the action, tree trunks rise from the earth into the gods to suggest the woods beyond the Covey’s farm – where the red menace is being sought – and the looming danger of condemnation, but also the unaddressed climate change. And while they are suitability moody, they’re also almost elegant and painterly, never quite working as a constant reminder of the oppressive regime invading their home. The quaint staging never quite connects with the action and performance to spark the production into life, which feels like a symptom of the overall problem. Despite all the right ingredients, it doesn’t seem fully alive.
It does heat up after the interval as things start to unravel. We also get to see more of Bryony Hannah, who is warm, brave and believable as their self-determining neighbour Sarah. And Paul Nicholls’ strained Samuel becomes much more vivid as his sanity is consumed by guilt. But when the denouement comes, it’s more depressing than auxiliarating. Maybe, for all its timeliness, Foxfinder now feels too close to home for its neat resolution to land while the world outside is still being battered by the winds of change.