Full of pep and cheerleading chutzpah from the get-go, the Nuffield Southampton Theatres’ production of Fantastic Mr Fox opens with four sequined birdies singing a cappella about the avarice of man. Their numbers soon drop to just three, after an opportunistic Bunce spots them and lets loose his shotgun – the remaining trio rush off to man the bandstand at the top right of the elaborate stage, and we’re off to a flying start.
The same heady mix of restless energy, retro sports gear and macabre humour (which, in particular, is so integral to Roald Dahl’s work) is continued throughout the show, as we’re introduced to a colourful cast of characters who’ve been suitably vamped up for the stage. Sandy Foster’s Rabbit becomes an air-headed nymphomaniac with a penchant for carrots, while Kelly Jackson’s Mouse is an impossibly squeaky-voiced rodent who hates being picked up. Gruffudd Glyn’s Mole collects precious specimens of rock that he can’t actually see, and Raphael Bushay’s stammering Badger has the brains to devise a plan but lacks the conviction to convince others to get behind it.
These two last actors in particular are stand-out performers, doubling up in the roles of Bunce and Boggis to memorable effect. Richard Atwill is similarly impressive, at once devilishly evil as arch-villain Bean and equally deplorable as sozzled cynic Rat. Greg Barnett, meanwhile, brings bushel-loads of energy and a superb singing voice to the lead role, though his incessant hip-thrusting, relentless look-at-me bluster and unquenchable arrogance make him perhaps the least likable incarnation of Mr Fox to date.
Not that that’s a criticism, per se; stage adaptor Sam Holcroft seems intent on painting the fox as the tragic hero of the piece, impressive in his abilities but ultimately defeated by his own inflated opinion of himself. It’s only when he realises the value of working as a team and allowing others to participate in his raids that they prevail.
Though this wholesome message might seem a little heavy-handed and simplistic, it’s entirely suited to the average age of the audience (adults are outnumbered almost two to one, here). The play threatens to explore other, weightier issues (such as immigration “Not in our valley!”, austerity “Your children may be starving but we don’t care!” and government in general “Is there anything worse than being told what to do / By somebody dumber and duller than you?”) but never fully sinks its teeth into them, resulting in a hugely enjoyable but fluffily undemanding piece of theatre.
What’s more, the wedding cake-style set from Tom Scutt is an absolute joy; resembling an over-sized stage from Funhouse or Finders Keepers, it’s the perfect visual distraction for youngsters, while Maria Agberg’s direction shines intermittently – the introduction of the snarling hound more than likely gave one or two ankle-biters in the crowd fodder for nightmares for the rest of the month.
Much like the show itself, the dog’s bark turns out to be far worse than its bite – being a little more tooth-and-nail in its exploration of adult themes wouldn’t have gone amiss. On the whole, however, it’s an ambitious, energetic and brilliantly shell-suited reimagining of one of the true classics of children’s literature.