REVIEW: Foxfinder, Ambassadors Theatre ✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Iwan Rheon in Dawn King’s play Foxfinder at the Ambassadors Theatre.

Foxfinder review Ambassadors Theatre
Iwan Rheon and Paul Nicholls in Foxfinder. Photo: Pamela Raith

Ambassadors Theatre,
13th September 2018
Two Stars
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It is always fascinating to see which properties in the theatre get taken up for promotion.  This revival of a little four-handed, fantasy-future shocker is an interesting case in point.

First of all, it gets a very handsome production by the accomplished Rachel O’Riordan.  In a masterfully simply and gorgeous design by Gary McGann, we get a taste of his vision for presenting opera in an almost surreal mixing of wooden farmhouse and wooden forest, with an approximation of the Weltasche itself rising majestically out of the centre of the interior’s floor, while on one side a plain staircase ascends with symbolic mystery, and on the other, through chilly-looking windows pours the ravishing lighting scheme of Paul Anderson, in which the cast bask and glow.  McGann dresses them in the clothes of today, or perhaps of the recent decades past, but their world betrays few other signs of modernity.  Mobiles are out.  There isn’t even a landline.  If people want to speak to each other, they have to turn up and knock on the door.  Including the secret policeman-like visitor of the title figure.

In this world of the imagination, foxes are a ghastly ‘beast-like’ scourge, attempting to drag Albion back into some horrific chaos.  Only the moral rectitude of the government, with its itinerant lone foxfinders, stands in the way of them and national oblivion.  So far, so engaging.  The play begins, in fact, very much like the hugely powerful 3-hander, Sam Shepherd’s ‘The God of Hell’, given in a stunning production at the Donmar in 2005, comfortably before Dawn King launched this version of the same set-up at the Finborough in 2011.  And, indeed, the longer I sat and watched this drama, the more it came to resemble Shepherd’s earlier play. With one salient exception: the quality of the writing isn’t nearly as good.

That isn’t Ms King’s fault, of course: few writers are as good as Sam Shepherd.  She does her best.  With lots of good intentions pinned to her sleeve, she lucidly plots her way through her simple story, sketching in bits of dystopian unpleasantness lurking mere inches beyond the doors of the house, while allowing her quartet of two men and two women to manoeuvre nervously around each other, forever held up by a surface of Pinter-esque simplicity and straightforwardness.  However, while Pinter can give you ordinary people and also make you positively shake with fear and the dark forces at work upon them, King does quite give herself the chance.  She gets going, several times, but then has no way of sustaining ideas from one scene into the next: a blackout descends; music plays, thanks to composer and sound designer Simon Slater; and then we try to get it all going again in a new scene.  I can’t help feeling that her particular talent, and she has got talent, might be better served were it allowed to build, and build, and build, with as few unnecessary interruptions as possible.  It would be perfectly possible to move the structural chairs around to make the two acts work as single, unbroken actions: that would concentrate their effect and make for a much stronger play.

As it is, the actors are left with the almost insuperable difficulty of trying to forge links between the slender parts of this tale.  They’re all familiar faces from the telly, which will help them connect with a wider audience, but is that sufficient to hold it all together?  The couple we begin with, Heida Reed’s Judith and Paul Nicholls’ Samuel Covey, step adroitly over their cliche-ridden parts and do what they can to be real and affecting; their visitor, G.O.T’s Ramsay Bolton, and here the foxfinder William Bloor, Iwan Rheon, is swamped in black weeds, till he peels them off – all too briefly and insufficiently some might argue – to thrash his exquisitely ripped alabaster torso with a cat-o’-nine-tails: sadly, his voice doesn’t have the same flexibility, or beauty, and we soon tire of listening to its monotonous drone.  However, there is even a little spot of simulated (and fully clothed) coercive sex.  (And, up until those points, I had been wondering whether the simple-mindedness of the script was intended for a ‘Young Adult’ audience.  But, no; I don’t think it really can be.  Can it?)  And then, the interfering neighbour, Bryony Hannah’s Sarah Box, tries to inject a little action into the mechanical and predictable plot.  They really do do their best.  But the odds are stacked way against them.  The script is not going to come to life anymore than it has done.  If any prizes are to be given, then I give mine to Nicholls, for his tirelessly energetic and intense portrayal of the wafer-thin characterisation provided for him.

Never mind.  You can always go away and read ‘The God of Hell’ till the Covey’s cows come home, reflecting on just what it takes to be a really good playwright.  And you never know, one day, maybe the producer here, Bill Kenwright, will want to tour THAT play!


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