‘Foxfinder’ review

Theatre, Drama Ambassadors Theatre , Covent Garden Until Saturday January 5 2019
3 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(8user reviews)
 (© Pamela Raith)
1/4
© Pamela Raith Iwan Rheon and Paul Nicholls
 (© Pamela Raith)
2/4
© Pamela Raith Bryony Hannah and Heida Reed
 (© Pamela Raith)
3/4
© Pamela Raith Heida Reed, Iwan Rheon and Paul Nicholls
 (© Pamela Raith)
4/4
© Pamela Raith Iwan Rheon and Heida Reed

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Dawn King’s intriguing, Iwan Rheon-starring dystopia loses some of its mystique in the West End

Depending on your perspective, this is either a revival for Dawn King’s ‘Foxfinder’ or an extremely belated West End transfer, after its acclaimed, sell-out debut at tiny fringe theatre the Finborough with a different cast and director back in 2011. But Rachel O’Riordan’s new production is also an object lesson in how achieving a winning alchemy of play and production can be as elusive as finding a fox.

Farmers Judith and Samuel Covey (Heida Reed and Paul Nicholls) anxiously await the arrival of William Bloor (Iwan Rheon). After suffering months of worsening crops, they’ve attracted the government’s attention. Their livelihoods depend on William’s investigation. But what will this ‘foxfinder’ conclude?

King’s eco-parable is strongly redolent of ‘70s TV dystopias, with its portrait of a doom-laden English landscape retreating to an unforgiving working of the land to survive. Her elegantly simple premise also has the robust flexibility of the best allegories, accommodating climate change, religious fanaticism and, these days, nationalist politics (cough, Brexit, cough). The stupidly exaggerated fox of William’s ‘training’ is a mind-controlling demon that comes over here, blights our land and steals our hens.

But the show is let down by an uncertainty (of tone, of characterisation) that hovers, sometimes distractingly, over everything. While the Ambassadors Theatre has one of the smaller stages in central London, a lot of tension evaporates into its height. The poised, painterly feel of O’Riordon’s production (and Gary McCann’s set design) sits uneasily with the play, which pivots on the claustrophobia of William’s invasion of Judith and Samuel’s lives.

This production also never gets a consistent grip on the terseness of the script. There are moments of dark wit, but also an overwroughtness that drags. This wavering carries into the performances. Rheon – best known as the sadistic Ramsay Bolton in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ – could probably do creepily unnerving in his sleep. But here, as the puritanical William, he’s a hesitant presence, never fully bringing his character into focus.

Reed (of ‘Poldark’ fame) and Nicholls do nice enough work as Judith and Samuel, grieving the death of a child while trying to deal with their unwanted houseguest (even if Nicholls largely spends the second half stomping angrily around the cramped set). But it’s Bryony Hannah as the couple’s neighbour, Sarah, who really shines in a relatively few scenes. In a confrontation with William, she brings a much-needed spark of raw desperation to this production.   

By: Tom Wicker

Posted:

Venue name: Ambassadors Theatre
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Address: West Street
London
WC2H 9ND
Transport: Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Leicester Square
Price: £25-£85. Runs 1hr 30min
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Average User Rating

3.5 / 5

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LiveReviews|8
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tastemaker

I thought this play was very clever and the overarching theme of faith was explored well in the metaphor of a fox that no one can see, but they believe is there. Iwan Rheon is the perfect fit to play William, his trademark creepy and unnerving being used to full effect. Bryony Hannah was also excellent as the neighbour Sarah, who confronts the Foxfinder but to no avail. The set was interesting but felt a bit underused, the simple lighting changes to signify different rooms in the house was well done. There was a lot of stumbling over lines on the night I saw it, hopefully that will be ironed out.

tastemaker

I really wanted to like Foxfinder and I actually enjoyed the concept behind it. The plot is set in a dystopian future where foxes have become scapegoats for all of society's ills. It centres around a couple who have a foxfinder--the government's fox hunters/exterminators, if you will--come pay them a visit and try to get to the bottom of why their crops have suffered this year. For the foxfinder, there's no way it's not foxes. For the couple, there's no way it is. This dynamic twists and turns and by the end of the play you'll be asking yourself who is right and who is wrong. 


Issues I had with Foxfinder were more around execution. Although I got some chuckles in (it's supposed to be a "dark" comedy), I gravitated somewhere between boredom and intense anxiety, which isn't a great combo.. Some parts were too slow and the turn arounds were a bit too brutal and too sudden. Iwan Rheon is so good at playing a creepy villain this didn't feel like it would have been a challenging role for him either. If you've seen GoT or even Misfits, this won't feel fresh. The only amazing character is Judith, the female lead, who had dimension and seemed like the only person in this play with her wits about her. Ultimately, if you like going from slightly sleepy to the edge of your seat, this might just be the play for you but I was overwhelmed. The intimacy of the theatre might lends itself well for other plays, on this occasion it might have taken away from the play. 

tastemaker

For a play that has been called a 'dark comedy' there was very little that was humorous about it. Overall it was quite slow and just didn't really seem to go anywhere, I kept waiting for something impactful of significant to happen but left at the end without either. Nicholls played a good part but his accent was very confused which was at times distracting, I found Judith quite wooden and both her and William stumbled over a fair few lines and Judith even stumbled over the set. Mistakes happen but it did feel a little bit clumsy at times! It wasn't terrible and I was intrigued about what was going to happen and wanted to stay until the end but overall it was a little bizarre! 


Foxfinder


Samuel and Judith Covey’s farm is one of many failing to meet its annual production quota. Bad weather seems to be playing a part, but the country seems convinced that the beastly foxes are the real cause, contaminating the farms and straining the country’s food supplies. The government raises and trains an army of ‘foxfinders’ with monk-like dedication to judge whether or not a farm is indeed contaminated. William Bloor, a relatively inexperienced foxfinder, arrives at the farm on a dark, rainy evening and from thence the drama does unfold.


Foxfinder is a gripping spectacle. The plot twists and turns at an exhilarating rate as we navigate our way through a sequence of deceit, betrayal, blackmail and madness. From the beginning to the end, every effort has been made to ensure that the audience do not feel at ease. Rather than being quaint, the setting, a wooden cottage in the middle of unspecified but quintessentially English countryside, feels cold, barren, disturbing. A toy train lays abandoned at the front of the stage with no child in sight. The trees which line the back wall seem to be encroaching upon the indoor space, presenting a sense of twisted, distorted reality, of nature taking over. They loom over the characters like the bars of a cage.


The furniture is minimalist and bare, reflecting the bleak dystopian world in which the audience are immersed. It could easily be the distant future or the distant past. The audio during scene changes, lacking any consistent or recognisable motif, consist of scratching violin sounds. Pinter pauses are present from the off, leaving long and uncomfortable moments of silence.


In spite of all of this, it’s a funny script. William Bloor (Iwan Rheon), the government dispatched foxfinder, draws the biggest laughs. With shades of Priestley’s Inspector Goole, he charges his way into Judith and Samuel’s home and immediately demands some form of identification from his hosts. Flaunting social etiquette, he explains, is but a necessary sacrifice when one has been assigned such a noble and important duty. This clearly brainwashed government stooge generates further laughs as his earnest, highly official lines of enquiry become increasingly absurd. And it’s this absurdity which firmly places the play in the genre of dystopian satire. But what exactly is being satirised? Many reviews describe Foxfinder as a parable, but a parable of what?


Perhaps it’s just me but I find it difficult not to project Brexit onto everything I see these days: government officials whipping up hysteria around Britain’s rural areas, nationalist rhetoric around the importance of a self-sufficient economy, fear of being at the mercy of foreign regimes. Foxfinder was first staged well before the referendum (2011), but it certainly could be seen as a critique of government and the lengths politicians can go through to convey a sense of control in the midst of a chaotic situation. William Bloor, following his bureaucratic series of Kafka-esque procedures, insists he must know whether they see more ducks in the sky or on the ground, must inspect the land in accordance with his precise system of grids, and ironically finds himself contaminating the lives of the farmers a whole lot more than any fictitious foxes. Government interference here is nothing but a hindrance.


Other clear parallels can be drawn with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and more recently Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, where hysterical fear spreads like wildfire among a community. Pretty much all of the characters in Foxfinder demonstrate fallibility, whether that’s betraying their friends, losing their grip on reality, abusing their power, or compromising their values. It’s a pretty bleak outlook on the fragility of civilisation and how close we are to self-destruction.


Foxfinder treads on well-trodden literary ground but it’s nonetheless refreshing to see something so probing on the West End. The cast is solid (Heida Reed is excellent as Judith Covey, a strong female trying her best to hold the ship as others around her flounder), the production is slick, and there are very few dull moments. If you’re still mulling something over a few days later, whether it’s a film, play or book, it’s usually a sign that it’s made an impression on you. Foxfinder certainly falls into that category – love it or hate it, it will certainly leave an impression and is therefore well worth your time. 

tastemaker

I left feeling very confused and rather underwhelmed. The cast is stellar, but the story was just too slow to get to where it needed to be. It's been billed as containing 'dark comedy' but I don't think it was that - I found it confusing and slow. 


It's a very small theatre, so you can see and hear everything that's going on on-stage, including the cast moving the props around. 


I'm sure there will be a large theatre-loving contingent that will revel in this show, but I found it a bit much and not enough at the same time. 


Tastemaker

I cannot remember ever seeing a thriller in the shape of a play before so was looking forward to seeing if it would work on stage.

I mentioned the play and  cast to my boyfriend’s family at dinner just before the show and they all said it would be very creepy as Iwan Rheon was involved and he was terrifying in Game of Thrones.

It was quite M Night Shyamalan like. It took a little while to really know what the issue is and the more you do the more you expect a big twist to turn everything you thought you knew on its head. It was very suspenseful and greatly handled but also a little comedic at times.

I really, really enjoyed the whole show which seemed to only last 20 minutes as I was so into it. It feels very much like you are into what it must have been like to be suspected of non-collaboration by the Nazis during WW2 and it makes you feel uneasy when you see how hard it is to dismantle the beliefs of people who have been indoctrinated to believe in a propaganda from very young as it was so cleverly crafted that they would find an answer to any proof that what they have been taught is not the truth.


The actors were all very  good too and carried the story.


Definitely try to catch this play while it’s on!

tastemaker

Sadly this was a tough experience to sit through and not because it was gritty or provocative but because it was unpolished and unimpactful. 


Based on a farmer couple who are struggling to make their quota, a 'Foxfinder' visits on behalf of the state to evaluate the crop and farm performance and to establish if there's an infestation. It is reminiscent of the state control themes of Hunger Games.


A small set relies on actors making the prop scene changes which is fine in itself and I've seen it many times but this felt distracting and clumsy. The actors stumbled across each other in delivering the lines through unconvincing accents. 


Iwan Rhoen delivers an awkward and emotionless first act transitioning to a very challenged character in the second act It was enjoyable to watch but didn't lift the play as a whole. 


The Ambassadors Theatre also hosts quite an uncomfortable seating plan which definitely doesn't provide a good starting point as a viewer.


At the interval, I did question whether it was worth a second act but stayed to watch the whole play to make sure I hadn't misunderstood first act but disappointingly it didn't really improve and I left fairly underwhelmed.

tastemaker

The 2nd most despicable villain of Games of Thones drew me to this play, and stayed for the mystery that kept me at the edge of my seat. Foxfinder opens with mundane worries of a stark reality (a farm's production quota), but layers into open questions about the commitment to our beliefs. And as we hunt for the elusive monster that is the red fox, we can't help but find it within ourselves.